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Pro Chess: The Video Chess Mentor DVD
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Reviewed by Stephen Higgins - January 8, 2003

One of the best instructional chess videos ever made has been reissued as a DVD, and the new format makes it an even better product than before. Previously available as a two-videotape VHS set, Pro Chess: The Video Chess Mentor has been converted to DVD, 15 years after the original came out.

The DVD format enhances Seirawan's work in two primary ways. First, it's far easier to find a chapter that you want to review. Rather than laboriously rewinding and searching a videotape, you simply go into the search menu and immediately go to any of the DVD's 44 chapters. Even better, if there is a section that particularly interests you, but it's not at the beginning of a chapter, you can jot down the time on the DVD "clock" and call up that exact point in the DVD at a later date. Similarly, it's easy to skip around from chapter to chapter on a DVD, like surfing TV channels.

Second, when you hit the pause button on a DVD player, you get a clear picture. I suppose some VCRs must offer the same level of service, but not one that I've ever had. When I hit "pause" on my VCR, I get a jumping, shaking mess on the screen. Lots of times when I'm watching a chess video I want to freeze the picture and analyze the position, and it doesn't usually work too well on my VCR. It's no problem with a DVD.

Plus, you can run a DVD on a computer as well as on a DVD player, with the right software. That might come in handy for players who use a lot of chess software and therefore have their computer set up next to their chess board and chess books.

Also, DVDs are designed to last far longer than videotapes, which are subject to wear and tear over the years. Even so, at $39.95 the DVD (now $29.95 as of 1/1/03) is much cheaper than buying both the videotapes, which cost $59.90 as a set (list price). Either way, Seirawan gives buyers their money's worth: At 3 hours 46 minutes, Pro Chess is nearly three times the length of most chess videos.

Watching the DVD is a real pleasure, since Seirawan is far more comfortable in front of the camera than most chess video hosts. I don't want to name any names, but some chess video hosts constantly dart their eyes around, speak in a droning monotone and generally come off stiff as a board.

While Seirawan may not achieve the standards of a professional actor or news anchor, he comes pretty close. He maintains eye contact with the viewer and speaks in a relaxed, friendly manner. His movements are fluid and he appears to be enjoying himself.

Unlike many chess videos that feature a host, a "slotted" demonstration board and nothing else, Pro Chess goes much further. Most chapters are introduced with a position set up on a wooden chess set, with Seirawan explaining the theme to be explored. Then the camera pans over to a series of over-sized magnetic demonstration boards that make it very easy to follow Seirawan's explanations. These demonstration boards, with variations already set up on adjacent demo boards, are the heart of the video. But it doesn't stop there. At many points, video of a live chess game usually starting from the position on the demo board comes up on the screen, with Seirawan's voice explaining the action.

For Pro Chess, Seirawan's team filmed him in action at the U.S. Blitz Championship, the World Open and at two simultaneous exhibitions. Many of the examples he uses to illustrate various themes were taken from these games, and it's very interesting to move from watching a demo board to watching the same position being played out over the board, often at blitz speed.

Another way Seirawan added variety to Pro Chess was by interviewing GMs Walter Browne and Larry Evans and interspersing parts of these interviews into the video. There is even a brief video of the mayor of Philadelphia issuing a proclamation at one of the simuls.

Pro Chess is intended for all chess players, "from beginner to international grandmaster," as Seirawan says in the first chapter. Seirawan assumes the viewer knows how to move the pieces, and starts out with a simple look at the board, explaining the importance of the central squares. From there the DVD moves in a logical manner through most of the strategic and tactical themes of the game, with the ideas becoming more and more complex.

The DVD is divided into four "study segments" Introduction to Chess, Novice/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced, and Intermediate/Advanced (II). Each segment includes 10 chapters.

While it may look like the chapters are in random order, with chapters on pawn structure interspersed with chapters on tactical themes, each chapter flows smoothly from the previous one. During the chapter on advanced pawn structures, for instance, Seirawan sets up a position to illustrate how to attack split pawns. At one point, a sub-variation includes the threat of using the windmill tactic. Seirawan explains the windmill, then finishes out the example. The viewer doesn't really notice a change in chapters, but it's set up that way in the search menu, so the viewer may go back and review the windmill section. Other chapters, of course, feature more obvious visual and verbal transitions.

Seirawan spends more time on pawns and pawn structures than any other subject, and he explains the reason in Study Segment II, How To Find a Plan: "Early in my career, my biggest difficulty was finding a plan for a particular position," Seirawan says. "Indeed, the ability to find a plan separates all levels of players." Seirawan then asks the viewer what factors should be considered in generating a game plan: "Should you base it upon where the king is, where the knight is, where the rook is? What to do? Many factors are temporary. What we need to do is find a factor that will be good, or valid, for all, or most, positions, and that factor is pawn structure. Pawn structures determine the nature of the position. They tell us what are the open files, open diagonals, whether the king is sheltered. They give us many, many clues."

Seirawan then leans over a wooden chess set where a pawn skeleton has been set up and describes what the placement of the pawns tells the player which side of the board to attack on and where to place each piece. He then proceeds to the next chapter, on weak pawn structures, following up later with segments on balanced pawn structures and dynamic pawn structures.

Pro Chess includes material that should improve anyone's game, from beginners to masters (I don't know about grandmasters, as Seirawan claims in the introduction. I would imagine the average GM knows this material in his or her sleep).

The lessons are presented in an enjoyable way, with Seirawan walking from demo board to demo board, sometimes leaning over the wooden set, other times walking off camera to introduce a new chapter. The cuts to live action games are interesting and give the DVD a liveliness and immediacy lacking in most other chess videos.

Most importantly, Seirawan is a good teacher. He makes very effective use of examples, from classical games to his own games, to illustrate the basic concepts. And the viewer tends to enjoy the lessons because Seirawan appears to enjoy presenting them. He displays enthusiasm and energy that is infectious and should inspire chess players of all ages and talent levels.

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Pro Chess: The Video Chess Mentor
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