The future of chess books (1)

by Frederic Friedel
4/30/2020 – People are urging me to write a book (or books) with stories about my encounters with famous players. And with puzzles and chess pleasantries. Most of the material has appeared on our news page, but the articles have descended into the obscurities of the archives. So people want a collection in printed form, to read in the garden, in bed, on trains. But what about the chess games and moves? Who is going to set up a board to replay them? Ahh, but perhaps there is a solution, a way to make printed games easily replayable. Curious? Here's what that would (will) look like.

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Let me say in advance: I have grown up with books. From the start I was a bibliophile, fanatically so, and in the course of a lifetime have collected many thousands of books – including chess books, which for decades have been sent to me by friendly publishers. To these (the chess books, not the publishers) I have always had an ambivalent relationship. On the one hand they brought me a great deal of pleasure. On the other I was distressed by the colossal waste they represented.

Take for instance the famous and for a long time ubiquitous Chess Informant. I bought it regularly. The picture shows what the contents looked like. It also tells you how much of the approximately thirty volumes I collected I actually read. Close to zero percent. I did look at a lot of diagrams and try to follow the next three to five moves in my mind, but that was it.

I did notice that a certain percentage of the visitors in my house, the ones who had GM titles, and especially the super-GMs, read my Informants like Agatha Christie novels. Anand, for instance, would grab the latest Informant, curl up in a corner, and spend hours giggling and laughing at games he was replaying in his head. Nobody, really nobody, ever pulled out a chessboard to replay games. Either they could replay everything in their minds, or they used my method of diagram scanning.

So just a small percentage of chess players actually read chess books or magazines. When's the last time you set up the chess board (I'm not sure exactly where mine is) and pieces (those I can find – I have two very nice sets in the shelf behind me) and replayed a game from a book? The situation has been exacerbated by the advent of replayable games in software and on web pages. That is so easy and so convenient that it is hard to find a proper place for books in the chess landscape.

So are chess books and magazines on the way out? Because you cannot replay moves, like you can do on any good web site? No, you actually can, if the publishers spend a miniscule amount of effort on it! Let me explain.

Everyone who buys a chess book has the ultimate replay device in their pocket, or on the coffee table. It is a smart phone or a tablet. What if you could use these, instead of setting up the chess board and pieces, to replay the game in the books? No mistakes, no tedious attempts to find your way back to the main line when you have been looking at analysis. Everything is automatic, just like on a replay board on your computer screen.

I am not the first person to think about this. Take a look at the paper "A Framework for Recognition and Animation of Chess Moves Printed on a Chess Book" by Süleyman Eken et al. It was published (in 2015) by the International Arab Journal of Information Technology and proposes "a set of techniques to animate chess moves which are printed on a chess book. These include (1) extraction of chess moves from an image of a printed page, (2) recognition of chess moves from the extracted image, and (3) displaying digitally encoded successive moves as an animation on a chessboard." It's all pattern recognition, and with AI today the process could be made very efficient.

But is that what I am looking for? You use your phone or tablet to scan a page, with an AI app to find the chess game and make it replayable? No, there must be an easier, non-technical way. And there is. The chess book author needs to provide the games and moves in replayable form to the reader, and the reader must have instant access to them. The solution: QR codes.

Once again I am not the first person to come up with this solution. When thinking about using QR codes in the chess books I might end up writing, I remembered that it had already been done, very nicely, by my friend Prof. Christian Hesse (who writes very entertaining books on mathematics and on chess). And I get them all from him. Searching through the twenty or so I own I found Damenopfer, written in 2015. "Damenopfer" is "Queen Sacrifice" and the subtitle translates to "Astonishing Stories from the World of Chess." It is a thoroughly charming collection of examples where surprising sacs play a decisive role – if you understand German it is well worth buying ($12.40).

The thing about Damenopfer is that, for the first time, every single game in the book contains a QR code for you to scan. Within a second or two you have the game, moves, and the entire analysis, on your mobile phone, in a bus, in the garden, anywhere. So you read the stories in the book and then replay the games on your electronic device. Let me give you an example:

Here are two pages I scanned from the book (click to enlarge). In case you don't know the German piece letters: KDTLS = KQRBN. Now try reading the two examples:

Chances are you can manage the first pretty well, but the second is more difficult playing through in your mind.

Now whip out your mobile phone or tablet. Check if you have a barcode or QR code scanner installed. Chances are it is already there, but if it isn't get one of the dozen or two available for free in the Apple Store or Google Playstore. Takes a couple of minutes to download and install – and of course you only need to do this once. After that you can use the scanner for all kinds of thing, e.g. read reviews of products in stores, scan grocery packages for recipies, etc. But you can also point your phone or tablet at the pages above. The scanner will automatically read the QR code and ask you whether you want to proceed to a page. That will take you to a special replayer for the game in question.You can play through the moves, tapping on the replay keys or on the notation below the chessboard. Very nice, don't you agree?

The two examples above may be just about manageable, following the moves in your mind and enjoying the beautiful tactics. But what about the following:

I just give you the diagrams and the QR codes. In the first case (White to play and win) Christian writes: "It looks like a perfectly hopeless situation for White. The chances for the white king to survive are the same as for a snowman in a blast furnace." And he goes on to show us the truly incredible moves White must make to acrtually win: 1.b6+ Ka8! 2.g7 h1=Q 3.g8=Q+ Bb8 4.a7 Nc6+ 5.dxc6 Qxh5+. "This is the critical point in the study," he writes, "White wins with a queen move that comes from a different world and a different reality." 7.Qg5!!! "The queen, dressed in a kamikaze outfit throws herself in between." Hesse give a three alternate lines explaining why the queen moving to g5 is the only way to win:

6.Ka4 Qd1+ 7.Qb3 Qa1+ 8.Kb5 Qe5+ 9.Ka6 Qa1+=
6.Kb4 Nd3+ (6...Qh4+ 7.Ka5 Qh5+ 8.Qg5 +–) 7.Kc3 Qa5+ 8.Kxd3 Qa3+ 9.Kc2 Qa4+=
6.Ka6 Qe2+ 7.Ka5 Qe5+ 8.Ka4 Qd4+ 9. Kb5 Qe5+=

6...Qxg5+ 7.Ka6! Qa5+! 8.Kxa5 Bxa7 9. c7!! Kb7 10.bxa7 "and Black raises the white flag, 1-0."

Beautiful, isn't it? What, you did not follow everything? Then use your phone or tablet to see all the moves and variations on a nice graphic chessboard. Incidentally, this is one of my all-time favourite studies.

The second example, on the right in the above scan, is a 27-move game with seven additional moves to show why Black resigned after a firework of sacrifices. Can be easily followed on the printed pages – by a GM, but not by me. But I can scan the QR code image next to the diagram and immediately replay everything on my phone. Try it, it is dazzling how White played 14.Kf1!!! to initiate the sacrifice tornado. In the book Hesse explains why 14.Kf1 (which he gave three exclams) was necessary – in order to avoid a bishop check nine moves later. This is explained in the book, while the moves can be replayed on your phone or tablet. After a five-second scan.

After getting re-hooked on Christian Hesse's book and playing through a dozen examples I realized I had the solution to my dilemma: how to produce a book in which people will not ignore most of the chess content – where they can actually play through all the games given.

So this is how I can produce my book – in fact in greater quality than in Hesse's book. That was published five years ago and a lot of progress has made since then. I also discovered how easy it is to implement: adding replay code takes me a average of a minute and a half per game. And readers get instant access to tools no chess author dreamed of, until a few years ago.

How I plan to use these tools – and how you can do the same for books and magazines – that will be the subject of my next article. I will also give you a couple of trial chapters which you can print out and use. And in return you can tell me what you think of the project.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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Boisgilbert Boisgilbert 5/2/2020 11:30
@Frederic. The struggle with the QR codes is that not every QR reader app properly loads the codes and lets you play through the analysis. No need to insult my competence or familiarity with these apps. The first one I tried would not let me play through the moves. Even with a functioning app, no engine can be loaded to do further analysis or play against. From what appears to be a Chess Informant game , I was able to load the position you are quoting with chessify in 20 seconds, and could analyze with Stockfish 11. Loading is slower than a QR code, but now I have a powerful free engine to work with. No point in quoting the engine’s analysis, which may or may not be correct, but would certainly be better than my own feeble efforts, and probably better than analysis done with engines of 2015. Chacun à son goût. You prefer the QR code method, I like mine. Truce?
Pagrus Pagrus 5/2/2020 04:31
Ther is an Android app called Chess Book Study that allows you to upload any chess book in pdf format into the app and then replay the moves on a chessboard. The screen is divided in two parts - the chessboard and the pdf text. You must enter the moves manually, they can be saved as PGN.

Very good alternative to paper chess book and chess set - providing that you have the paper book in pdf format.
distrachess distrachess 5/2/2020 12:37
Nice article and I am curious to read the following one.
I hope one day to have the whole book in digital form (including chessboard to move pieces), that can be read on Kindle or similar device, with a display that looks and feels like paper
Frederic Frederic 5/2/2020 10:24
@Boisgilbert: "Setting up a position takes only a few seconds, and both apps will let you share or mail positions and games." Really? Please do this page from one of my favourite magazine for me: And then replay the Monokroussos game and tell me if 24...Nf4 is a mistake, as the analysis claims, and why 24...Qa8 is better.

"I find them much easier to use than struggling with QR code samples provided." This tells me you have never scanned a QR code in your life. I showed the article to an 80-year-old friend on my mobile phone. He whipped out his phone and scanned a tiny QR from the screen on my phone. In two seconds he had the Hesse game with full analysis on his phone. No "struggling" involved.

The point is that (apart from abandoning books and magazines completely and switching to web pages with PGN replayers) I am trying to find a way to get the game smoothly and easily from the printed page into a device which I have in my pocket or on the coffee table. Of course I can type in a URL given in the book: On the other hand I can use a bar code scanner (which was automatically installed on my Pixel phone, but which I can otherwise install in minutes -- one of a dozen free apps). Now it takes me less than one second to get the entire game from the printed page into my Pixel (or my tablet), and I am already replaying and analysing, there in the garden, with the magazine on my lap. Readers can copy the URL above and use it in a browser to see what it is like. I generated the web page in 55 seconds, and could generate and embed QR code, ready to print, in the magazine (if I was the editor) in another 30 seconds.

But I should (and will now) leave all of this for my follow-up articles.
rwmerrell rwmerrell 5/2/2020 09:53
Everyman chess ebooks come in Ebook, Kindle, PGN, and Chessbase. Not dependent on one piece of software as others have incorrectly stated. Maybe they won't be around forever but probably for as long as you will need them. I do like the QR code idea too, but maybe the QR code could lead to a download file.
Boisgilbert Boisgilbert 5/2/2020 05:05
Why bother with QR codes? For iphone users, the free app chessify will take any position and analyze it for you. Or if you want to play through a game or position from a book, simply use Stockfish and it will let you effortlessly retrace your steps in a nest of variations. Setting up a position takes only a few seconds, and both apps will let you share or mail positions and games.
Infind them much easier to use than struggling with QR code samoles provided.
catalanFischer catalanFischer 5/1/2020 08:50
Yes Forward Chess is great. They have more than 400 books and increasing.
I like paper books but I don't have place for more in my small apartment.
Frederic Frederic 5/1/2020 05:38
genem: "Hesse's QR Codes will respond only as long as the website they ping is kept alive, which represents an ongoing monthly cost. This seems like a fragile dependency in the long run." It has lasted six year. If at some stage and for some reason the website dies, then the book becomes useless, it degenerates into a perfectly normal chess book? Is that what you are saying? (Note the irony)
Frederic Frederic 5/1/2020 04:45
I grew up with books, and have always been obsessed with them. They were the main form of information dissemination in my youth. What I am trying to do is to try to save chess books. It is wonderful for me to read them, on paper (hey that's just me). Until now it was just the narrative parts I could follow very nicely, but I want to be able to follow the swaths of chess information that is always included in paper books. I like to have a 3000 Elo teacher explain to me why something was or was not played, instantly, while I am following a game.

Put the whole thing on the Internet, as an active ebook? That is telling me that traditional chess books are doomed, everything should be published electronically. Maybe things will end that way, but not for want of my trying to find an alternate solution, one that is trivially easy to implement (subject of part two).
Garland Best Garland Best 5/1/2020 03:13
For those with old school books (no QR codes, no electronic version), there is an app for android phones called ChessOcr, which allows your phone to directly transfer chess diagrams in a book onto a chess program on your phone. it works well.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/1/2020 01:47
@algorithmy I still get great joy from my chess library of hardcopy books so you need both. I also prefer to read books for certain exercises rather than do my work only on a computer (I have read about 250 cover-to-cover) since I feel like it tends to bring superficiality. On a computer, it is just too easy to guess, move, and then take a wrong answer back, and try again. You do not get to try again OTB, and I feel like a real book makes me think harder.
Kushal Jani Kushal Jani 5/1/2020 08:20
This should be promoted!
genem genem 5/1/2020 07:07
C.Hesse's use of the QR Code is well worth the commercial try his paper book gives it. But his QR Codes will respond only as long as the website they ping is kept alive, which represents an ongoing monthly cost. This seems like a fragile dependency in the long run.

Would Hess'e QR Codes approach work if his book was propagated to an Amazon static ebook?

Like @NoSystem, I too have a few Forward Chess "active" ebooks. Plus I have one from Gambit, and another from Everyman. It is very easy to advance forward through a variation in these books, and to watch the black & white 2D board update instantly. But it is too hard to step backward-forward-backward-forward a few times through the same one variation, where there are several branching variations. After stepping backward, it takes effortful attention to carefully remember and tap the exact variation, and to correctly navigate the tree to skip over alternative variations: fixing this problem would be a big win. The regular PC Fritz UI suffers this same hassle.

These different active ebook brands all use their own proprietary format, and their own proprietry phone app. This means most active chess ebooks will eventually become unusable: for example, if Everyman goes out of business, they will cease to upgrade their reader app. All would have a longer life if they all agreed on one common public domain format that all their apps could read.

Unlike Hesse's QR Codes, these active chess ebooks work even when I am not connected to any 4G or wifi network.

I much enjoyed Frederic's article, and am looking forward to his follow-up article.
lagerstein lagerstein 5/1/2020 05:55
Lets try and put the whole question into perspective. According to "The Oxford companion to Chess" by David Hooper & Kenneth Whyld the first published books on the modern game was in 1490, 530 years ago. Ask your self what will last longer the paper book or the electron? I suppose that question answers itself in some ways but books do keep on keeping on (even with minimal care) by ebooks need readers. Will there even be a human race in another 530 years (The Year 2550)?? Who knows?
afiedito afiedito 5/1/2020 04:45
Great Idea...It will increase my motivation to read more chess books. It will increase concentration and focus on the material discussed in the book....
philidorchess philidorchess 5/1/2020 03:44
FF always amazes me.
CMPonCB CMPonCB 4/30/2020 10:00
Hmm, the way that you effortlessly enjoy old paper chess books is not by scratching around looking for a board and pieces, but to have them permanently set up on a table. Then it's no trouble at all. Treat yourself to a nice set and it even enhances the look of a room and creates a talking point with visitors.

No doubt there will come a day when I am isolated from my books and my digital collection will come to the fore, but until then ...
NoSystem NoSystem 4/30/2020 09:47
I have bought half a dozen e-books that use this format from an online chess retailer called Forward Chess. (Other than as a customer, I have NO connection with them.) They have several hundred chess books, some well-known and some obscure, and are gradually adding more. For the reasons Mr. Freidel mentioned above, this is now my favorite way to study the game. Check them out.
Ravandechessclub Ravandechessclub 4/30/2020 09:05
Studying chess books is tough.
Hope we can make them easier
ItalianPlayer ItalianPlayer 4/30/2020 08:39
several years ago I worked to integrate a javascript in the ebook (widget)that reproduced the games as it happens in the app, so as to read with pleasure and replicate the game. too many problems. no recognized code standards, different devices, javascript implementation limitations, perhaps the times were not yet ready...
SeniorPatzer SeniorPatzer 4/30/2020 08:15
I think the idea is very cool.

However, I have one observation. Since I regard OTB, mano-a-mano classical chess as the ultimate, the pinnacle, the best, and most prestigious form of chess, does thinking and visualizing in 2-D training pose significant difficulties when actual game play is in 3-D?
lnlver lnlver 4/30/2020 04:58
I like it! Sometimes it's a little hard to work the play buttons, but it beats having to having a board and pieces and setting positions up.
adbennet adbennet 4/30/2020 04:29
The article is a little breathless considering the state of the art in chess ebooks today. I'm not interested in scanning QR codes. How about a solution that doesn't involve a network trip every time I want to replay a different game?
michael bacon michael bacon 4/30/2020 03:59
Just finished reading a Chess BOOK! Arkells Odyssey: The Autobiography of a Chess Grandmaster, by Keith Arkell, which was enjoyed immensely. Replayed each and every game on a real set, with pieces and a board. So just a small percentage of chess players actually read chess books or magazines? Pity, because the game is played on a set and board.
Sampru Sampru 4/30/2020 03:45
This is brilliant
algorithmy algorithmy 4/30/2020 03:44
I don't get your point! Why don't you make the whole book digital? Who needs a paper based book if you can have it in a digital form?!