Tuesday, March 22, 2011

W(h)ither the British Chess Magazine?

[Author's note 29th June, 2011: The BCM have asked us to point out that Steve Giddins is no longer their editor.]

The past?

We live in interesting and difficult times. In days of yore the path of the righteous man might have been beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men (as Jules would tell you), but right now simply knowing where the road is supposed to be in the first place is far from straightforward.

Take Libya for example. It’s only two shakes of a lamb’s tail since we were snuggling up to old Gaddafi and yet here we are firing a gross of cruise missiles up his chuffer because it turns out he’s a bit of a cad after all. Who could have known?

Anything that happens in the chess world is entirely inconsequential in comparison to the news from North Africa or Japan, but we are, nevertheless, no less awash with moral problems than anybody else. Be they global and significant (e.g. Frenchies cheating at the Olympiad and the subsequent inquiry;  the game's ongoing relationship with Kirsan and whether or not that’s OK), local and relatively trivial (e.g. the Surrey County Chess Association having a team captain who who has been banned from playing at an internet chess site – or two? – and whether that’s OK), or some combination thereof (e.g. Lara and Michael Stock’s recent exploits in New Zealand) we seem to be surrounded by ethical dilemmas just now.

Given everything that's going on it seems rather strange that it should be so difficult to make a profit publishing a magazine devoted to Planet Chess, but that's economics for you. Apparently the situation has become so dire that the British Chess Magazine has resorted to an email appeal for new subscribers. 200-300 more in the next few weeks or it's curtains, they say.

Coincidentally or otherwise, shortly before sending that email the new(ish) BCM editor, Steve Giddins, had deleted his blog* from the interweb. Whether there is a direct connection between its going and the appeal for new subscribers, or whether he took it down in the midst of a hissyfit, I have no way of knowing. Either way, however, it seems to me that the disappearance of the Giddins Blog in particular, and his reaction to the Stock/New Zealand shenanigans in general, shed a little bit of light on the difficulties the magazine are facing just now.

I rather fear that requests for the chess public to subscribe to the BCM out of sympathy are doomed to failure. The structural problems facing the print media as a whole not withstanding, however, it is just possible that the BCM editor - albeit inadvertently - might have given his employers a hint as how they might start to dig themselves out of their predicament.

I'll get back to what Giddins' take on the Stocks might say about the BCM's troubles in a moment. First, for anybody who's missed it, I'd better review what happened down under.

So, to recap (think of this bit as the opening minutes of an episode of The Killing):-

3rd MARCH:
  • Chessbase publish a story saying that a WGM and her 2200+ rated father have been caught using false names to enter an under-1700 tournament in New Zealand and, not surprisingly, making off with the prize money (the princely sum of $55). Pictures of the pair are published, but they are not named.
  • Chess Vibes, referencing a post on an Australian chess forum, identify the pair as Michael and Lara Stock.
  • Giddins picks up the story in a blog post.  He calls for Ms. Stock to be stripped of the WGM title and banned from international chess for life while lamenting that this is unlikely to happen because, "chess has never had a governing body that has taken action in such cases". As a by-the-by we might also observe that our man doesn’t feel able to name the object of his ire (he refers to her as "the odious little wretch") and, curiously, at no point does he find it necessary to say what punishment he thinks would be fitting for her father.

4th MARCH:
  • There's a little bit of afters at the Giddins blog. The Stocks (as before he isn’t naming them and he continues to more or less ignore Stock Sr.) have still got him hot under the collar – "utterly outrageous behaviour", "a criminal act of fraud", "[s]he is a crook, and should be treated as such" etc. – but for the most part he has redirected his fire and he now has the entire "chess world" in his sights. The real problem, he says, is the game’s "fundamentally misaligned moral compass". Those who disagree with his stance on the shenanigans in New Zealand, he tells us, "betray a very worrying lack of understanding of the basics of moral philosophy".

13th MARCH:
  • Evidently distressed that his words have fallen on deaf ears, Giddins uses the comments box at Alex Wohl's blog to make a surprise announcement:-
I have taken down my blog and will not be engaging in any further punditry on matters in the chess world. If even a voice of intelligence and reason like yourself [Wohl - JMGB] cannot see the seriousness of what happened in NZ, then there is no hope for chess. Have a good life, all of you, but it's not a life I want any part of.

What are we to make of all this? Clearly, Giddins is absolutely right to argue that the small amount of money gained in no way makes the Stock's behaviour acceptable. Yelping on about "fraud" and life bans is ludicrously over the top, but that doesn’t mean that he is wrong to condemn their actions.

The problem, need I say it, is Giddins' suggestion that nobody other than himself has any understanding of ethics. While the opportunity to learn something of the basics of morality is most welcome, one has to wonder about a moral compass which insists that the Stocks be denounced and yet apparently allows a long-standing relationship with Raymond Dennis Keene.

If cheating some amateur chessers out of a few quid the other side of the world is wrong – as it obviously is – why has Giddins never had anything to say regarding his investigations into, amongst other things, Raymondo’s past dealings with Tony Miles, the evidence of his plagiarism or his agreement with Korchnoi which included a clause prohibiting RDK from writing a book about the Baguio World Championship match of 1978 and which he signed just after he’d put his name on a contract with Batsford confirming he would do precisely that? Perhaps because he's too busy playing Smithers to Raymondo's Mr Burns?

After hours at the Staunton Memorial

Enough with the Simpsons riff. Let's move on to what this has got to do with a chess magazine getting itself out a tough spot. It seems to me that there are three morals to be drawn from this tale: the wisdom of deleting a blog, the value of "punditry" and the little matter of Giddins/Smithers himself.

Whatever motivated the act, from a business point of view Giddins' decision to remove his blog was almost certainly a mistake. A presence on the internet is a great opportunity for a magazine editor to engage with his readership. More importantly, it's the best kind of advertising you can get - an opportunity for potential subscribers to get an idea of the kind of writing that they might expect to receive if they were to hand over their cash.

That said, if you use the internet to give your potential customers an idea of who you are and what you're about, insulting them is probably not a good a good plan. Cultivating the impression that you're perfectly willing to strike out at soft targets far far away while ignoring less comfortable issues and opponents nearer to home is similarly unwise.

If you're looking for customers, to me it seems self-evident that a blog or some other internet presence is a good idea. What, then, to put on it? What to say about Giddins' apparent aversion to 'punditry'? Once again I feel his decision has not done his employers any favours.

Looking again at the BCM's email I see that of its ten sentences a mere 21 words are devoted to telling you what they give you in exchange for your money:-

"You get 12 issues, 56 pages per issues (sic), with news, instructional articles, annotated games, chess history articles, problems, studies, photos etc."

The trouble with much of this - especially the news and games, but also the problems/studies/photos too - is that an awful lot of people can get their fill of it for free on the internet. They won't have to wait around a few weeks for a magazine to pop through their letter box either; it's just right there in front of them.

As I mentioned the last time I wrote about chess journalism, if a magazine can give us one thing that the internet can't it's the time and space needed for the interpretation and explanation of the world around us - or, to put it another way, punditry!

I happen to think that Giddins was along the right lines with his writings on the Stocks, he just needs to do it better. There's nothing wrong with polemic as long as it's not providing an argument that an obvious hole in the middle of it. Sure, there's nothing worse than a boring pundit, but that's no reason to entirely turn your back on this area. Quality specialist columns/opinion pieces are perhaps the one thing that might just help save chess-related print media.

Finally, then, we turn to the man himself. On paper he must have looked like a good candidate for the BCM Editor's chair. I'm not sure, though, that it's turned out that way.

I've never read one of Giddins' books, but looking around the internet you won't often find anybody who's got a bad word to say about them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Giddins, the chessbook author, is evidently held in some esteem by those who've read him. Unfortunately, as a journalist the reverse would seem to be the case.

The problem is that he rather gives the impression that he divides the world into two categories: those worth sucking-up to and everybody else. This wouldn't be so bad if he could manage a neutral attitude towards the latter group, but he does rather seem to enjoy treating them (i.e. us) with disdain. For those who recall Giddins' fondness for references to "termites", that he announced the end of his blog with a "screw you all, I don't want anything to do with any of you" flourish will not have come as a surprise.

The fact is that the BCM are now in the position of begging for pity-subs from the very people that the editor has antagonised in the past. It's hard to imagine this scenario would have arisen with Giddins' predecessor; inconceivable that you'd ever have read anything approaching this,

"Unfortunately, the future of the British Chess Magazine is in the hands of John Saunders ...."

as one EC Forumite felt the need to say about Mr G.

So that's my recipe to help turn things around at the BCM: Giddins needs to change his ways or be replaced; the editor, whoever it is, needs to find a formula that can't be replicated on the internet; and the BCM staff need to embrace the internet and engage with their potential and actual readership. Would this be enough to make a difference? Is it even possible? To be honest, I don't know.

It could well be that whether it's Steve Giddins at the helm or anybody else, the BCM simply isn't a viable entity any more. One thing I'm pretty sure of, though, is that asking people to subscribe to a magazine for no other reason than to save it from extinction will, at best, only delay the inevitable. The folk in charge of the BCM need to come up with some new strategy or there's a good chance that I'll find myself digging out that gravestone picture again some time soon.

* I am indebted to Roger de Coverly and Justin Hadi from this thread from the EC Forum for tip-offs regarding the demise of the BCM Blog and the comment at Alex Wohl's blog.

Old BCM cover image taken from here


Tom Chivers said...

I think a loss-leading couple of free issues might be the way to go with the BCM - first three free, cancel any time, that kind of thing. I saw the first issue Giddens edited and have to say I thought it was very good indeed.

Even when he hadn't posted for months, we got a huge number of visitors from John Saunders's BCM blog and his link to us. From that I would think it means that 'editor of BCM' is still a title with some considerable standing in the British chess community. Is, or at least was until recently.

ejh said...

Giddins. Giddens is a bloke who works at the LSE.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the $55 winnings should be donated to a good cause. May I suggest the Save the Penguin Fund.
Joe S

Coventrian said...

Justin, maybe Steve could've got some subs from Gaddafi.

Anonymous said...

Can any of you help? The title of this piece reminds me of a quotation. It was 'Whither' followed by one word, most likely a name, possibly a place. Not especially recent, possibly literary or maybe historical/political


Jonathan B said...

There was a jokette "whither atrophy". Presumably that wasn't what you had in mind though.

Anonymous said...

No it wasn't that. On second thoughts it may have been 'something whither' rather than 'whither something' if that makes sense.


Tom Chivers said...

Retired from here now - to the Lords in fact.

Mr_Toad said...

Your search for Whither appearances afforded me the pleasure of delving into the following site: http://quotes.dictionary.com

Firstly, one that seems fairly apt as a description of my blitz games (!) - more at:

"Man ... knows only when he is satisfied and when he suffers, and only his sufferings and his satisfactions instruct him concerning himself, teach him what to seek and what to avoid. For the rest, man is a confused creature; he knows not whence he comes or whither he goes, he knows little of the world, and above all, he knows little of himself (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)."

Secondly, a quote I can empathise with as I grow older:
"The things we now esteem fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves, like ripe fruit, from our experience, and fall. The wind shall blow them none knows whither (Ralph Waldo Emerson)".

Remarkably, I was chatting with my wife yesterday about this exact experience ie I was telling her that, as I grow older, I have gradually stopping putting my faith in many of the things that once seemed sacrosanct eg democracy.

The quote that strikes me the most forcibly is "Whither thou goest, I will go". The site "Answers.com" tells us that it is "Part of a longer promise of fidelity, spoken by Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. The longer text reads:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

Thank you for sending me on this particular journey.