Monday, September 17, 2012

A likely customer

If you were reading the internet a couple of weeks ago, you may recall the strange case of RJ Ellory, the crime writer who was shown to have given himself favourable reviews on Amazon under a pseudonym designed to obscure his identity: a practice known as "sock-puppeting". This echoed another relatively recent case, that of the previously-reputable historian Orlando Figes.

Personally I found it rather strange that anybody should do such a thing. Do people actually buy, or consider buying, a book on the basis of reviews on Amazon? Presumably they do. But I wouldn't. Anyway, however serious or trivial you think it is, it's clearly poor form, and a little bit sad to boot.

If you're anything like me you may have wondered if anybody had ever behaved like this* in the normally respectable and responsible world of chess book publishing. But who, possibly, would do such a thing?

Who do you think?

To get to the point by a roundabout route: some time ago I happened to be looking at the website of Impala Press, a publishing house "set up by a team including Ray Keene OBE Chess Grandmaster and Chess correspondent of The Times, The Sunday Times and the International Herald Tribune and Lord Hardinge of Penshurst".

Impala, who are pleased to have as their Historical Adviser Professor Jackie Eales - Ray Keene's sister, as it happens - is in fact a vanity publishing outlet, whose pitch to potential
mugs customers, I recalled, said something about Amazon reviews.

"Amazon reviews", indeed, "and ratings".

Now I don't know how many Amazon reviews Impala have ever got round to writing - I get the impression they're not currently very active as a business - but looking up Impala again, after the RJ Ellroy affair, I found this one, by someone calling themselves Hugh Davies "Teenage Chess Prodigy", written on 13 July 2007 (a Friday) and awarding a rating of five stars.

More like a publisher's blurb than an actual review, it begins:
Julius Caesar and Imperial Rome continue to fascinate us, even two thousand years after the empire's apogee. In this book Alexander Meynell has a selected number of writings linking Rome with Britain, including a survey of Roman and Celtic Britain by the eminent historian Sir Charles Oman.

Meynall himself delivers some speculations on Hadrian's Wall and late Roman Britain, before the protective legions departed, while Raymond Keene, OBE, of the Spectator and the Times, has been invited to contribute a peice surronding indentifications
[sic - ejh] of four Roman busts in the Royal Automobile Club, Pall Mall.
You get the drift. As far as I can see Mr Davies wrote no other reviews that day, something which only seems abnormal because the previous Friday, 6 July, he managed to write no fewer than 116 reviews, all of them awarding a maximum five stars (save the first ten, which uniformly awarded four). Reviews bearing a surprising similarity to publishers' blurbs.

What a fantastic effort. He was apparently still knackered after the weekend, since on the following Monday he wrote another which began thus:
Published in 1777, and including the text of the 1749 edition, this is possibly the first chess book in English.
Which is a novel way to describe The Spectator Book of Chess: An Anthology. Even though its author, Ray Keene, seems to have been with us a very long time.
Old hat, of course, but not that old

I suppose we've all had Mondays a bit like that.

Moving on from his embarrassment, as far as I can see all of Mr Davies' reviews save his last were written not for Impala but in support of books published by Hardinge Simpole - the Hardinge being the Lord referred to above, and the Simpole being Julian, another longstanding Ray associate. (There was one other exception, actually - this review for a Harry Potter. He liked that book too.)

I don't know Hugh Davies' identity, though I suspect his name may not be Hugh Davies. I don't believe it's Ray Keene either, not with that workrate. I do, however, have a fair idea as to who is.

Let's have a look at Hardinge Simpole's chess list. The first book listed is Chess, by Richard Eales (which, in a previous Batsford incarnation, was a rare example of a chess book reviewed by the London Review of Books.) Richard Eales was, of course, a very strong player in the Seventies, a professional historian and the husband of Jackie Eales. This makes him Ray Keene's brother-in-law. (This last is something Ray neglected to mention when plugging a more recent book of Richard Eales' in his Times column.)

But I am still lingering on that roundabout, as it were, so let me get back to Richard Eales' book. Click on the link for and we find some reviews. The first one is by A Customer and begins:
Who better to write an account of the history of the game of chess than a chess Master and well-established Historian?
which is intriguing, since a review on begins
Who better to write about the History of Chess than a chess master and well established historian?
But that is another exit from our roundabout altogether, so let us move on to the second review (on the UK site) which is by the ubiquitous Hugh Davies. So straight on to the third, which is, coincidentally, by another A Customer, who writes thus:

Clearly a very satisfied A Customer. And going by the style, the same A Customer who has reviewed the book on the site:
murrrays history of chess is the one usually quoted but the book by richard eales is vastly more readable-the print is better and clearer-it is not packed with obscure footnotes and it is much more up to date. also - even if you cannot play chess at all -there is still plenty in this book to enjoy-no knowledge of the moves is required at all.eales also has the advantage of having written after the ussr took such an interest in chess and after bobby fischer had made his impact.for a good read on the history of the game this book has no equal.
Recognise that style? Course you do.

Let's have a look at the first of Ray's books on the list. The Evolution of Chess Opening Theory: From Philidor to Kasparov. Click on the link, skip past Hugh Davies and here we go: it's A Customer again. What does our customer have to say?
this book is an expert commentary by one of the world's top chess writers. grandmaster ray keene has published over 100 books and he also writes the daily column for the times and the international herald tribune. he was the chief second to korchnoi in his 1978 world title bid.
in this book he traces the development of openings ideas from the late 18th century to the days of kasparov. keene shows that dogmatism is always defeated and that modern champions are characterised more by their open mindedness and receptivity towards new and risky ideas than by hidebound acceptance of abstract rules! this book will really help you to play more daringly and more strongly in your chess openings!!
There can be no question about it. That's Ray. Ray, sock-puppeting, reviewing Ray.

On this occasion he neglects to puff himself on, though Hugh Davies, whose 124 reviews show what else he was doing in that July 2007 week, is recruited to the cause.

Next up is The Brain Games World Chess Championship 2000: The Official Inside Story of Vladimir Kramnik's Sensational Match Win Against Garry Kasparov, which receives five stars on from Hugh Davies. Meanwhile Ray, I mean A Customer, contributes a short note in the book's favour:
this book is the sensational account of how garry kasparov lost his world chess title to vladimir kramnik his former pupil. every game is annotated in great depth by grandmaster ray keene who also raised the finance for and organised the match.
I rather like "every game is annotated in great depth" - and indeed "concentrate on the critical variations" - as I recall having read a rather different description ("concrete variations tend not to feature very prominently in these annotations") in a rather longer review elsewhere.

But let us not be sidetracked. On to Leonid Stein, of which work A Customer writes
leonid stein died tragically early before he fulfilled his ambition of reaching a world title match. he won several of the strongest tournaments ever held and also scored brilliant victories against top opponents such as petrosian , tal, botvinnik , smyslov and keres.this book contains his best games annotated in detail but also in a highly readable fashion. there are also plenty of stein's best results and a special chapter on his devastating miniature wins against grandmasters.
Or, at
leonid stein was a genius of attack who beat botvinnik, tal petrosian, smyslov, keres and a host of others. the games here are annotated very carefully and in highly readable form by the grandmaster correspondent of the london times and the international herald tribune. every game is a joy to play over. some people have claimed that some of the games are not by stein. this is simply untrue. every game is well authenticated and there will be some marvellous sacrificial treats very lucidly explained for anyone who buys the book. there is also a biography of stein with his most important results spelled out in out for stein's immortal game against krogius!!
I was about to be sidetracked again - what's this all about?
some people have claimed that some of the games are not by stein. this is simply untrue
- but just in time, I notice that though this is the same, unmistakeable Ray Keene style, it's not A Customer this time. It's Penny Smith, or "PS", from "London, UK".

Curious lady, Ms Smith. She writes five reviews, all giving five stars to Hardinge Simpole books. The first two, both written on July 30, 2002, are written in standard English. But the other three, all reviewing Ray's books, are all written in Ray's English, and all dated November 11 2002.

How intriguing. Not just a sock puppet, but a shared one.

The next one on the list is Nigel Short: Best Games of a World Title Challenger. A Customer likes it:
a great book about one of britain's greatest ever players and the only brit in the last 100 years or so to challenge for the world championship! short rose to the top in meteoric fashion and by the age of 28 he was kasparov's challenger having disposed already of speelman , gelfand, karpov and timman. this book is a highly readable collection of short's best wins-the notes are accessible and not heavily loaded with telephone directory style variations. the author grandmaster ray keene makes the chess board combat come to life. there is also an interesting foreword by short's friend and supporter the editor of the sunday telegraph dominic lawson. shorts wins are backed up with a fine selection of his best tournament results.
Probably wise, thinking about it, to praise "accessible" notes and decry those horrid "telephone directory style variations". Hugh Davies likes it too and funnily enough, so does Penny Smith - whose ten reviews, all from September 2006, are all, naturally, five-star Hardinge Simpole jobs. But this time, all of them in English that is not of Ray's style.

By this time it's a surprise - though possibly a relief - to discover that Winning with the Nimzo-Indian attracts only a single notice, and that from Hugh Davies, but moving down the list, A Customer is back to praise Nimzowitsch / Larsen Attack: 1 b3.

You've had enough by now, I should think. So have I. There are plenty of other books on the list, and plenty of other sock-puppeted reviews, should you wish to find them.

Who was Penny Smith, when it wasn't Ray? Who was Hugh Davies? Who was the other A Customer? I know the answer to none of these questions. What I do know is that Ray engaged in an extensive sock-puppeting operation.

It's not illegal. Neither is it reputable. It's bad practice, but nearly everything Ray has done in the last thirty-five years has been bad practice.

The Society of Authors has an opinion on sock-puppeting: "it's absolutely wrong". Ray may not agree. However, if he wants to pledge himself never to engage in the practice again, there's an open letter he can sign.

Of course, it all took place years ago. And by Ray's standards of shamelessness it's quite a minor sin. I'm not terribly outraged.

Matter of fact in some ways I rather like it. It's so Ray. Writing five-star reviews of your own books while pretending to be somebody else? It's a scam, it's petty, it's less than honest. Though in this particular instance, it's largely harmless.

It's fiddling things just because you can. It's Ray. It's very, very Ray.

[* I refer, of course, purely to the sock-puppeting per se. Both Figes and Ellory also used their pseudonyms to rubbish the works of their rivals, a rather more serious and distasteful activity to which I don't seek to find any parallel.]

[Ray Keene index]


John Cox said...

Fantastic. My favourite post so far on my favourite chess blog. Any chance of an OBE for the writer?!

Off-topic btw, what's happened to Austria?

John Cox said...

Is it just me, by the way, or does the practice of 'sock-puppetry' remind anyone else of the practice, admittedly in a slightly different context, of 'tea-bagging'?

ejh said...

I can certainly say that it had never occurred to me before I moderated your comment.

Tom Chivers said...

I don't know what tea-bagging is, but I'm going to have a nice cup of tea right now.

Anonymous said...

I reported this to Kingpin, perhaps 3 or 4 years ago. Whatever happened to that magazine? :) What annoys me is that their abuse of Amazon's review system is so blatant, and yet nothing has been done about it!

Given John's surname, moderation is an excellent idea for some of those comments.

Jonathan B said...

Meanwhile at the EC Forum John's comments here are described as "wrath". I must admit I didn't read it that way.

Jonathan B said...

Wrath about the S&BC Blog, that is.

John Cox said...

Oh really? I thought it was being said I was wrathful with RDK.

Either way I can assure you I'm not wrathful with anyone - mirthful, certainly.

LMGTFY, Tom.....

You might want to finish your cup first, though.

Tom Chivers said...

You think I want to know? I don't want to know. I want another cup of tea, that's what I want.

Jonathan B said...

I thought it was being said I was wrathful with RDK.

Oh, probably my bad. Very possible that I was confused. Practically everything else about that post confused me.

As for Sock-bagging ... I suppose there is something about swallowing something (perceived to be) unpleasant, but isn't the real issue about consent - and lack thereof in sockpuppetting.

ejh said...

(The comment sent in this morning was interesting, but would need a name attached in order to be passed. Cheers.)