31 December 2013

Chess History Cat Fight

In these final days of year-end revelry, finding the time for a serious blog post can be a tough task. I was overjoyed today when, during my weekly trek through various chess news sources, I stumbled on a no-brainer. First, there was a scholarly trashing of Chessgames.com: Chess History Content in the Digital Era: Cardinal Sins and a Cautionary Tale, by Olimpiu G. Urcan on Chesscafe.com.

It ended,

Chessgames.com exemplifies some of the worst dangers of the new El Dorado gold rush in chess over the Internet in the 2000s. A promising idea has degenerated into a project where little or no attention is paid to accuracy, and where shoddy goods are palmed off as the fruits of scholarship. It is all about what is easy and quick, with quality given nary a thought. Consequently, the site's reputation in the eyes of genuine chess lovers, connoisseurs, experts, and knowledgeable fans of the game – a reputation that was always poor for obvious reasons – has diminished at a vertiginous rate.

A decade-long failure to respect basic research methodology and ethical norms, coupled with unwise alliances with some of the most disreputable characters in the chess world, and allowing certain members to have recourse to mindless venom of the kind found on the old Google Groups chat rooms, has fatally reduced any value such a site might otherwise have had. Chessgames.com certainly remains an easy-to-access tool, but as a research tool it is not worth two cents, let alone eight cents a day. Let the reader beware.

The italics are mine. I consider myself to be a 'genuine chess lover', and a somewhat 'knowledgeable fan'. At least I did until I read the Urcan piece. Since I'm also a genuine fan of Chessgames.com, it looks like I've been deceiving myself all these years. Good thing Mr. Urcan came along to point out the error in my thinking.

A little later in my weekly chess news trek I came across related material under User Profile: chessgames.com, a forum for discussion of Chessgames.com administrative policies. Here are the first two responses, both by people with the title 'Premium Chessgames Member'. I suppose they are both unfortunate types who have paid 'eight cents a day'. (Is that all it costs? Maybe I'll join, too.)

Dec-29-13 MostlyAverageJoe: I stumbled across this: http://www.chesscafe.com/urcan/urca... and am wondering if you are aware of it and whether any response is planned...

Dec-29-13 dakgootje: Unscholarly trimmings.. swamped by drivel. Heh, drivel. Sure, if the site's only purpose was historical accuracy. If you presume all commentators ought to be chess history researchers, then the average kibitz would equate drivel indeed. (And presumably even without that presumption the average kibitz in the cafe <is>) However given that this isn't the sole reason people visit this site, the argument gets undermined quite a bit. Without wanting to do extensive scholarly standardized research, I'm fairly confident the large majority of visitors don't much mind which month of 1922 Jimbob played Sue. They played, we've got the game, and -oh wonderful- we know the year/venue. If we'd really want to, that information is probably sufficient to find a primary source.

The attack reminds me of the time Edward Winter trashed Mark Crowther in the late 1990s. Chess historians really live in the past, don't they? Must see if I can find that Winter / Crowther piece, but first there's some year-end revelry to get out of the way.


Here's wishing a healthy and prosperous 2014 -- first to all 'genuine chess lovers, connoisseurs, experts, and knowledgeable fans', then to all fellow Chessgames.com fans, and finally to the great mass of humanity who haven't forgotten that chess is just a board game!


Later: From Tim Harding's The Kibitzer, Looking Back: Chess in 1914 and 1864, undated, but I bookmarked it in January 2014.

Postscript • I concur with many of the criticisms made by ChessCafe.com colleague Olimpiu Urcan in his December column about the website chessgames.com, though I have by no means investigated it in the detail that he has. I rarely look at that site, occasionally when other sites link to it, and I have usually found it a waste of time. My own site does not link to it.

As for the so-called historical articles on the chessgames.com site, you can be pretty sure that every one will contain at least one error, probably plagiarised from a previous work of equally dubious provenance. For example, Urcan's article links to a page about the Steinitz-Gunsberg chess match of 1890-91 and Urcan suspects that chessgames.com has obtained its information from Nick Pope's much more reliable Chess Archaeology website without attribution.

However, I see that the chessgames article includes an incorrect statement that the Hungarian-born Gunsberg was a British citizen at the time of the match, "making him the first British challenger to the World Chess Championship." However, as readers of my book Eminent Victorian Chess Players will know, Gunsberg did not become a naturalized British subject until 1908. (I am absolutely certain about this, having examined the Gunsberg naturalization file at the British National Archives.) The original source of the error at chessgames.com is probably the very bad book Grandmasters of Chess by Harold Schonberg. By now, that mistake has probably been repeated in numerous other places.

My first recommendation to you is to delete chessgames.com from your favourites (if it is there) and not to follow any links to it. Secondly, if you are in need of an online chess game database, I suggest the NicBase online database which offers a free searchable database of about 1.7 million high-class games.

Chessgames.com is not at all the same species of web resource as NicBase, but each to his own.

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