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Neil Brennen

Neil Brennen is Historian for the Pennsylvania State Chess Federation, and is editor of the PSCF's award winning magazine The Pennswoodpusher. He is a columnist for Correspondence Chess News. Aside from CCN, his articles on chess history have been published at The Chess Cafe, and in Quarterly for Chess History, California Chess Journal, Illinois Chess Bulletin, and other publications. Neil's first book, a biography of American master Sydney T. Sharp (1885-1953), will be published later this year by Moravian Chess.

Much Ado About Nothing...
by Neil Brennen
(posted 6 May 2003)

Squares: The Chess World's Picture Magazine
Published by Thinker's Press
Quarterly, $9.50 an issue, 64 pages

I've been putting off this review for a while. While the chess world can always use another chess magazine, there are some features of Squares that, to put it mildly, can use improvement. I was afraid I would be unduly negative towards a fledgling magazine simply because the magazine's publisher was publicizing it excessively. I'm not fond of hype, and prefer to find the truth. Fortunately I remembered that a reviewer who was afraid to be negative was comparable to a general that feared warfare, and so I was able to overcome my reluctance to review Squares.

Squares: The Chess World's Picture Magazine is a quarterly chess magazine published by Thinker's Press, a major chess book publisher. The new magazine sets an admirable goal. As the Editor and Publisher, Robert Long, writes in his "Editor's Square" on page 64, "...we won't be electing anyone or having policy opinions. We won't be involved in rows between reviewers, publisher, resellers, etc. It's not about rancor, it's about chess." These are sentiments I endorse, and so I will conduct this review in the same spirit. This review will be about chess, and more particularly chess as presented in Squares.

On the back cover, Squares, the self-described "chess world's picture magazine', asks, "Ready for something NEW to spice up your chess life?", and advertises itself as the chess magazine on the "razor's edge". The phrase is appropriate, since razors have been used for cutting and pasting since journalism began, and as you will see, Squares specializes in cutting and pasting. I gather they use a computer to edit Squares, but I suppose the phrase "the Control-C's edge" looked bad on the back cover. But let's look at some of the new, or rather NEW, material Squares brings us:

Page 3-8: A lengthy article on Louis Paulsen and Hypermodernism, reprinted from the Correspondence Chess League of America magazine The Chess Correspondent.

Page 13-14: A reprint of a chapter from Dr. Ken Colby's 1979 book Secrets of a Grandpatzer.

Page 34: A reprint of a book review by the late GM Tony Miles, published in Kingpin in 1998.

Page 56-57: A "fragment" of an article on Ulvestad, from IM John Donaldson's recent pamphlet (published by Thinker's Press, publisher of Squares) on this long-neglected player. Donaldson had a very similar article in Chess Life within the past year.

Page 61-62: A review of a chess set marketed by Chessco, "modified" from a Tennessee chess club website.

Thus is a new (pardon me, NEW) chess magazine begun. But this is just to start. There's more "new" (or "NEW") material as well. As chess journalist and organizer John Fernandez noted in a posting to rec.games.chess.politics, some of the annotations in the selection of games from the Konig Memorial may not be entirely "NEW". We quote from Mr. Fernandez's newsgroup post::

"Game 2, Wojtkiewicz - Akobian is annotated by Akobian and Yermolinsky. I'm a bit confused about this one, since a lot of the analysis is exactly what was in the annotations by GM Ftacnik in ChessBase Magazine 92. After move 13, EVERY line given by Akobian and Yermolinsky is exactly in Ftacnik's annotations, with the same annotations and evaluations! The only difference is that Akobian and Yermo leave out some lines and add some text to the moves. Game 3 had already been analyzed by Atalik in CBM 92. I assume the comments were Yermo's. Ditto for Games 5, 6 and 9. In Game 8, Nakamura - DeFirmian, Kapengut had already fleshed out most of those lines."

So it appears from Fernandez's description of the recycled ChessBase Magazine analysis in the Konig Memorial article that even some of the "NEW" material is not quite so new. And some of the NEW articles have the feel of recycled material, such as an article on the King's Indian by IM Andrew Martin, although I can't find a previous publication for it. No doubt all this NEWness is prompted by Long's confession/brag in his "Editor's Square that most of the articles in Squares were contributed "pro-bono". Sometimes you get what you pay for.

Fortunately there is some new NEW material in Squares. Unfortunately much of it is of low quality. While GM Jonathan Rowson wrote an interesting article about a game he played with an Iraqi IM, we also are presented with such endemic Longarghea as a review on a recent book of GM Arthur Bisguier's best games and an essay on chess historian John Hilbert. We are so much better off for knowing that "Bisguier is a talent", which just one of the pearls of wisdom Mr. Long dispenses along with his customary ahead-of -the-dictionaries grammar and Chessco sales pitches.

And there are plenty of sales pitches. Grandmaster Joel Benjamin, writing in his magazine Chess Chow, once described a chess magazine as full of "ads disguised as articles". While Benjamin's remark was directed to Chess Life, Squares is an even better match. This magazine is stuffed with undercover sales pitches for Thinker's Press books and merchandise sold from Chessco - for example, the article about John Hammond, which turns into a pitch for the Thinker's Press Purdy series. Or a short piece titled "Why Are Some Chess Book Titles So Weird", which turns into an add for an upcoming Thinker's Press book. Even an article on pawn endings (a NEW article sent to Long "years ago", by the way) turns into a list of books to buy. Squares sets a new standard for attempting to mimic a chessseller's catalog. However, Long has been a leader in this area for years, in the past successfully selling a newsletter that allowed the lucky subscriber to keep up to date with new arrivals at Chessco.

Squares is filled with Bob Long's stylistic thumbprints. Note the meaningless circled pawn in the photograph on the table of contents page, or the three titles ("The Oxford Incident", "How to Write a Big Chess Book", "How to Write a Chess Encyclopedia") given to Ken Whyld's article (one of the bright spots in the magazine) on the research and writing of The Oxford Companion to Chess. The table of contents is filled with such knee-slappers as "Did Iowa do this to him?" following the title of the Paulsen article. Long, a self-proclaimed expert on publishing, uses an excessive number of fonts in the various article titles, which gives the magazine the appearance of a book of clippings from various sources. It's a pity that he didn't spend the time he took to think of witty remarks on proofreading; there are a number of bad diagrams.

There is one more problem with the "chess-world's picture magazine" that should be addressed. All reputable magazines give credit to photographers for use of photos. However, most of the photographs and illustrations in Squares are uncredited. This, combined with the knowledge that most of the written material in the magazine was reprinted from other sources, raises a few eyebrows. If Squares has nothing to hide regarding the source of the photos, why are they hiding it? Who took these photos? And who drew the cartoons and line illustrations?

It doesn't help matters that many of the photos are uninteresting at best, or just plain bad. The Humungus Head Of Hilbert bearing down at us on page 53 takes the palm in this first issue, bearing down at us like a cartoon balloon from a chess history float in a Thanksgiving Day parade. No photographer would want to sign their byline to this floating head, which appears to have been clipped from somewhere and then processed into a grainy and gray image. Other photos appear small, or pixelated, or both small and pixelated.

Are there things to praise in Squares? Yes. The above-mentioned Rowson and Whyld articles are very fine, and there's also a good piece on Rook endings by GM Karsten Muller. The cover is very attractive, and the paper quality is good. But this is not enough for this reader to justify the investment of money or time in Squares. If this is the "chess world's picture magazine", it is for a chess world that never strays beyond Davenport, Iowa, and for a chess world that passes the day in a chesseller's checkout line. Sorry Mr. Long, your magazine is not about chess, it's about Chessco. The world has real chess magazines that could use our support instead of your overpriced ($9.50 cover price per issue) disguised catalog. My advice for the prospective subscriber to Squares is to ignore the publicity, which is much ado about nothing, and subscribe to a real chess magazine. Squares is no worse than a bad cold. Take lots of warm liquids and perhaps it will be over soon.


© 2003 Neil Brennen, All Rights Reserved.

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