Review - American Chess Magazine (Issue 1)
Chess has, without question, undergone a huge renaissance in the US these days. There are simply too many spectacular accomplishments: Winning the 2016 Chess Olympiad for the first time in the American chess history, Jeffrey Xiong joining a long and illustrious list of greats by winning the World Junior Championships, Wesley So's phenomenal results bringing him to number 2 on the rating list are 3 of the most noteworthy ones.
On a more "grassroots" level, St Louis, thanks to the generosity of multi billionaire Rex Sinquefield, is now recognised as the global chess hub, with the annual blockbuster Grand Prix event, regular grandmaster tournaments and job opportunities for chess trainers at the St. Louis Chess Club.
The U.S. is also, to my knowledge, the only country where well-established universities offer chess scholarships to promising players and a well-known trainer and a good friend of mine told me that chess is so popular in the U.S. these days that he is having trouble finding time to take his family for a holiday because of his intensely packed training schedule!
Clearly, chess is experiencing a huge push in the U.S. at the moment and this, perhaps inevitably so, led to the birth of American Chess Magazine "ACM."
The letter from the editor (Mr. Josip Asik, who has a 25 year career in sports journalism) from the first issue has a familiar but yet eye-catching slogan: "Making American Chess Great Again". The magazine ambitiously sets its goal to try and "make chess attractive in terms of both its creative content and visual presentation", and was "designed to to record not only the exploits of those men and women who fulfill their varied roles as star players, trainers, and sponsors..."
And indeed, the ACM's main focus is on the performances and games of Americans even though its contributing editors and writers is highly international and its first issue includes contribution from superstars such as Ivanchuk and Jobava, as well as a long list of renowned GMs.
When I received the first two issues of ACM, what struck me immediately was the presentation and design of the magazine. As you can see, the cover page is eye-catching, and the magazine is littered with photographs of stunning quality. Quite clearly, Josip and his team have spared no expenses in ensuring that the quality of the material is not just rich in content, but also attractive and easy on the eye.
I don't really see a point in elaborating further on this given that the main emphasis of this review shall be on the chess content but I think people tend to take such quality for granted and I see the need to give credit and congratulate Josip and his editing team for putting in amazing effort to design a beautifully crafted piece of work.
The first part of the magazine (over 30 pages) was focused on the U.S.'s team's historic performance at the Baku Olympiad. There was a quick interview with team captain IM John Donaldson, GM Ivan Sokolov's analysis of his three favorite games from the U.S. team, and perhaps most special of all, a personal review of the event from GM Sam Shankland, who played board four for the gold medalists.
Ivan Sokolov during the Baku Olympiad.
Sokolov is an extremely experienced trainer and writer and ACM has done very well for themselves in including him in their list of regular contributors. He did not shy away from delving deeply into theoretical discussions but took time to explain important nuances and move orders that will certainly be useful for amateurs and balanced the analysis with the latest games that were played to explain the current state of affairs in that particular variation.
For example, his first game, which was not a surprising choice given how important it was in terms of securing overall victory for the U.S. team, and also the individual gold medal for Wesley So, is the game Nepomniachtchi-So in the match between the U.S. and Russia. Here's a truncated version of his analysis. All comments are mine, unless otherwise stated:
Sokolov went on to analyse the games Caruana-Bareev and So-Perez Ponsa, giving theoretical updates in the Caro-Kann and the King's Indian as well. His analysis has a fine mixture of dexterity and detail and I imagine his comments will be useful for both amateurs and theory junkies like myself.
Shankland, who has been a critical member for the U.S. team in recent years, gave his personal experience and the roller-coaster ride that the U.S. team took en route to the gold medals. It was certainly not a walk in the park as many may unfairly have expected. He gave a ton of examples where grit and resilience rather than skill and technique were exhibited such as the following:
Mareco - Nakamura, Baku 2016
White was much better but Nakamura took his opportunity when it arose and managed to draw a depressing position.
Korobov - Shankland, Baku 2016
Shankland saved this tough rook ending with a series of precise moves. It looks easy enough when you go through the moves but it's quite another task having to work this out at the board not knowing whether the position is drawn or lost, and with so much at stake.
Some may argue that there was an element of luck given how close the tie-breaks were eventually but one cannot underestimate the desire, determination and resilience that was exhibited by the U.S. team. From these examples, it can be said that the team fought valiantly for one another and given that they did beat Ukraine in their individual match-up, there is no question that the U.S. are deserved champions of the 2016 Olympiad.
Moving on, there is then a series of short articles from a number of guest columnists further covering the Olympiad, such as the reigning World Junior Champion Jeffrey Xiong who covered two important games played by the U.S. team that were not already covered, Harikrishna's analysis of his highly complex game against Mamedyarov, GM Eric Hansen's take on Canada's performance and a deep theoretical discussion on his crucial game against Shankland in the final round where he shattered Shankland's long unbeaten record at the Olympiad, David Smerdon's hilarious yet instructive account of his blockbuster game against the world champion, Georgian GM Mikheil Mchedlishvili's annotation of his upset win over Hikaru Nakamura with the black pieces, and GM Andrei Volokitin, the MVP of the tournament, scoring a staggering 8.5/9, analysing an immensely complicated middlegame played between him and Hansen.
American top female player GM Irina Krush also gave a review of the women's section with some noteworthy highlights in the most critical games, and taking all of the above into account, this issue covers over 50 pages on the Baku Olympiad. In this sense, this first issue of ACM can be said to be an Olympiad special.
Given that the world championship was, at the time of print, to be held in New York, it was no surprise that ACM gave a preview of the match between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin. Of course, we all know how that ended by now, but it was still an interesting read even now, and I found GM Mauricio Flores Rios's commentary on the styles of both players particular intriguing, and he tries to back his opinions up with evidence, i.e. more analysis of the games of the two contenders of course.
Carlsen, despite being THE World Champion for many years, still remains much of an enigma to many analysts and players alike, with his immense flexibility and all round approach. While many claim that the Norwegian likes to go for lines that are less forcing and theoretical, Mauricio himself pointed out an impressive game in which Carlsen unleashed a momentous theoretical novelty that more or less reduced the entire variation to the bins:
One of the most surprising articles from this issue for me personally, is an article from the enigma or genius that we know as Vassily Ivanchuk. It has been a long time since we've seen written commentary from Chucky, and here, he covered the following game that was played in the Turkish League in 2016:
Ivanchuk's love of the game is clear as sky and I could feel his almost child-like excitement during each critical juncture from his prose. I would love to see more of this stuff and hopefully ACM might perform the impossible and get him to contribute a regular column? Please?
The next article was contributed by the Georgian maverick, Baadur Jobava, who is these days pretty well known as one of the super GMs who contribute regularly to irregular opening trends. He covered a game that began with the weird 1.e4 c6 2.Be2!!!???, a recent game he played with the Jobava attack, a line which starts with 1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bf4, a theory update on the sharp line 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 d5 4.cd5 Nd5 5.e4 Nb4, and even the O'Kelly Sicilian receives a mention.
Jobava is a highly original player and this shone throughout his analysis. Don't expect to see too many engine lines and sure, some of these cannot be sound but they are great fun to review and one could easily test some of these stuff in blitz or rapid.
There are more articles that I can talk about, such as an endgame column by a former world class player GM Jonathan Speelman, and some thoughts from GM Joel Benjamin on recent critical issues in the global chess scene being worthy of mentions but it is easy to say that I really enjoyed the chess content featured in the magazine and like I already mentioned, there are tons of gorgeous photographs littered across the magazine and the design is simply top notch.
The only thing that I feel kind of sticks out for me is that, well, this is truly a magazine for Americans and there is a strong emphasis on the games of American players, and their results. There is even space provided for the American chess community to provide their thoughts on the U.S. team's achievement in Baku and in issue two, on So's meteoric rise to number two in the world rankings. Of course, there is nothing excessive about this and there is every right to celebrate the achievements and hard work that were put in by these players and their teams.
This however, inevitably takes space away from coverage of important events such as the super strong Isle of Man Open and the Tal Memorial that I would personally like to read about. I would also like to know if some of the articles are going to be regular columns so that readers can form some sort of expectation of what we are gonna get for the next issue.
For example, there is an opening column in issue two by GM Jaan Ehlvest which could be said to be a sequel to Jobava's article in issue one, an article on queen endings by GM Alex Fishbein which is probably a continuation of Speelman's article in issue two, and a return of Ivanchuk's column (YES!!!).
But we then see a list of different columnists such as GMs Rafael Leitao, Alejandro Ramirez and Denes Boros who are all strong players in their own right. Intriguingly, there is also a column of a completely different subject nature such as a historical overview of world title matches by GM Mihail Marin.
I feel that this makes the magazine a little random in terms of both columnists and columns, and you might not actually feel comfortable with that if you compare ACM with, say, NIC magazine, where you can expect all high level tournaments to be covered in considerable detail, and game analysis provided by the actual players. On the other hand, I think ACM's approach is kind of refreshing and as long as the content and analysis is sound, I don't actually mind to be kept guessing as to what exactly I'll be getting the next quarter.
The pricing is somewhat on the high side though, if you consider the fact that NIC magazine costs 80 Euros (roughly 90 USD) for eight issues a year while ACM costs 99 USD for four issues a year, although to be fair, ACM includes CBH and PGN files which makes it far easier for readers to go through the games. However, if you are looking for original and fresh analysis and chess content, pairing a subscription of ACM and NIC would be all you need in my opinion.
My final rating would be 4 dinos out of 6. The main reason why I did not give a higher rating is because I need to consider the fact that there may be many out there who prefer some kind of certainty to the actual chess content. I don't wish to be too harsh given that this is a very new publication and I am sure Josip and his team is still kind of figuring out what really is the best approach. Perhaps, the best compliment I can give is that ACM has tremendous potential to match or even outstrip the best chess magazines in the world. NIC, you have been warned.
4 Stars - Very promising, and I look forward to reading the next issue.