Sac’ing the Exchange

This review has been printed in the May 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

Kasparov, Sergey. The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2016. ISBN 978-1941270226. PB 256pp. List $24.95.

Some years ago I was sitting in a coffee house in Carbondale, Illinois, studying chess with a friend. I had just received the third volume of Garry Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors, and we had this position on the board.

image

As we tried to grasp the logic of Black’s 25th move, a man wandered over to us and said “…Re6, right? Sac’ing the exchange? It’s from Reshevsky against Petrosian at Zurich in 1953.”

How could he know this? Surely, I said, you must have overheard us talking. Our visitor explained that the position was famous, that all good players knew it, and he then proceeded to trounce us in blitz before revealing that he was a life master. Hrumph.

The exchange sacrifice – exchanging a rook for a bishop or knight (and perhaps a pawn or two) – is one of the most dramatic weapons in a chess player’s arsenal. With today’s emphasis on dynamism and concrete play, the quality of one’s pieces is often more important than their nominal value in contemporary chess.

Because the exchange can be sacrificed in most any type of position, a systematic treatment of the theme would seem a difficult task. Nevertheless, it is a task that Sergey Kasparov (no relation to Garry) undertakes in The Exchange Sacrifice: A Practical Guide, his new book from Russell Enterprises.

Kasparov’s book proceeds in two main parts. In Part I, the first two chapters, he offers something of an introduction to the exchange sacrifice through the games of Tigran Petrosian and Anatoly Karpov. Examples from their praxis – including cases where their opponents sacrificed the exchange – are linked to the thematic chapters in Part II.

Those chapters are the bulk of the book, and in titling them, we see Kasparov’s attempt at systematization. The early chapters – “Domination,” “Fighting for the Initiative,” “Trying to ‘Muddy the Waters,”’ and “Utilizing an Advantage” – tend to feature positions where the sacrifice is not required or definitively best. As Part II proceeds, the later chapters – “Simply the Best,” “Launching an Attack against the King,” “Reducing your Opponent’s Offensive Potential,” “Destroying a Pawn Chain,” “Building a Fortress,” and “Activating Your Bishop” – seem to involve sacrifices where the compensation is less nebulous.

I think that part of the romance of the exchange sac can be located in the question of compensation. For many years its assessment was one of the weak points of even the best engines. Today, however, this is not the case.

Many of the positions in Kasparov’s book, especially in the later chapters, are well understood by the machine. In many positions Houdini (whom he cites regularly) sees the exchange sacrifice as correct or necessary, meaning that it finds some kind of calculable compensation for the material.

Of greater interest, at least for me, are the positions and sacrifices that the computer doesn’t immediately understand. In these pure ‘positional exchange sacrifices,’ the exchange is given not for mate or material but for ‘quality of position.’ We might think of 17.Rxb7 in G. Kasparov-Shirov (Horgen 1994; game #33 in the book) in this regard. Engines may recognize the compensation after seeing a few moves, but they would never play the move on their own.

There is little attempt on Kasparov’s part to offer a broad theory of the exchange sacrifice. Save a one page conclusion (and a welcome set of exercises) at the end of the book, there is no summary of findings beyond “the material balance ‘rook against a bishop and pawn’ can be regarded as practically equal”(243).

Perhaps I am asking too much of the author. This is a practical guide according to its subtitle and not a textbook. Kasparov’s writing has an enjoyable, folksy style, although it is ill-served by a stilted translation. For all of this, I think the book feels incomplete without some kind of summary statement to tie everything together. Without a theory of quality and compensation or a practical set of guidelines, it’s hard to recommend The Exchange Sacrifice as anything more than a collection of very interesting positions.

Biographies from McFarland

This review has been printed in the April 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

Harding, Tim. Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786474738. HB 592pp. List $75.00.

Sanchez, Miguel A. José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786470044. HB 277pp. List $55.00.

Zavatarelli, Fabrizio. Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786496907. HB 376pp. List $75.00

Most of the biggest publishing houses leave chess to their smaller brethren, with a few notable exceptions. Batsford and its valuable backlist have changed hands a few times, now resting with Pavilion Books out of London. The US Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess was for many years published by McKay, and is now in its 6th edition with McKay’s successor, Random House.

There is an American house that is publishing some very interesting studies of chess history as part of its wide and varied list, and chances are, unless you work in the industry, that you’ve never heard of them.

Until now, that is.

McFarland & Company is an independent publisher from North Carolina. Focused on the library market, they specialize in fields like military history, baseball and popular culture. Somewhere along the way they added chess to their purview, and today McFarland puts out more scholarly chess books than any other publisher.

Some of these titles – compilations of hard-to-find crosstables, bibliographies, etc. – are of limited popular interest, but the biographical works have potential cross-over appeal. I gave the 2014 McFarland release of Andy Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion a favorable review in these pages (May 2014), and the book went on to win the Book of the Year prize awarded by the Chess Journalists of America.

Four McFarland chess biographies have crossed my desk in recent months. Two – Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career by Fabrizio Zavatarelli and Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess by Stephen Davies – are first rate works on fine but lesser-known players. Zavatarelli’s book in particular is worth a look. The tale of Kolisch’s rise to fame and fortune, made possible in part through his chess contacts, is dramatically told.

Of possibly greater interest are the titles on José Raúl Capablanca and Joseph Henry Blackburne. The legendary Capablanca was the third official world champion, holding the title from 1921-1927, and Blackburne was one of the top tournament players of the later nineteenth century. Both books bear an identical subtitle – “A Chess Biography” – but as we shall see, it reads rather differently depending on the author.

In José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography, Miguel A. Sanchez paints his portrait of Capablanca against a broad backdrop of time and country, economy and politics. The first chapter, for example, describes the history of Cuban chess, showing how the sugar boom allowed aficionados to bring players like Morphy, Steinitz, Blackburne and Chigorin to the island. It also gives face and personality to many of Capablanca’s early supporters and rivals.

There is much that is familiar in Sanchez’s account. The general outlines of Capablanca’s life are well known and there are no shocking revelations to be found here. Still, I suspect that even the most ardent Capa fan will learn something new from Sanchez’s very readable book. Of particular, if morbid, interest is the discussion of Capablanca’s high blood pressure and health problems, the deleterious effects of which Sanchez locates much earlier in Capablanca’s career than commonly thought.

There are 192 competently annotated games in José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Because Sanchez emphasizes biography over chess, contextualizing Capablanca’s chess career within his life more broadly, this number feels appropriate. Contrast it with the 1184 games and 55 compositions in Tim Harding’s Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography, and you begin to get a sense of a stark difference in authorial attitude towards the biographical task.

Blackburne was the best British player before the rise of Miles, Short and Adams in the late twentieth century. He was a great popularizer of the game and one of its first professionals, making annual exhibition tours through the ‘provinces’ for nearly sixty years (1861-1921) and specializing in simultaneous blindfold exhibitions for fifty of them.

Most of Harding’s work has gone into excavating the details of Blackburne’s chess career. He has recovered unknown games, corrected errors in published games, and created detailed travelogues for his tours and travels. Many details of his family life are documented and dozens of pictures are provided, but make no mistake – this is a chess biography.

Harding’s book feels definitive. Of course new material will continue to be discovered, but so much work went into its writing, so much material is presented, that it almost overwhelms the general reader. Historians will find Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography to be an indispensable resource, but casual fans may want to start with the chapter on Blackburne in Harding’s more approachable Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

Enter the Dragon

This review has been printed in the March 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 1. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830076. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 2. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830090. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Children love playing it. It appears as a plot point in the soapiest of Spanish telenovelas period dramas. The Chinese have even gone so far as to try to make it their own.

It’s gotta be the name, right?

Bobby Fischer famously claimed that he’d worked its defeat out to a science (“…pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!”) but the theory and practice of the Sicilian Dragon have come a long way in recent years. Not only are there new sub-variations to try – the Chinese Dragon, the Topalov Variation, the Dragadorf – but the traditional main lines have undergone extensive analysis and empirical testing. How can the Dragoneer hope to keep up?

Older one-volume introductions by Chris Ward and Mikhail Golubev are now dated. David Vigorito’s Chess Developments: The Sicilian Dragon (2011) is fairly current, but it does not cover every line. For a complete, cutting-edge repertoire, Dragon players should consider the new Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon 1 and 2 by Gawain Jones.

In theory few are better suited to cover this opening than Jones, a lifelong Dragon enthusiast with a rating in the mid-2600s. Of course Elo and experience are no guarantee of authorial talent, but after wrestling with the books for a few weeks now, I’m glad to report that Jones was up to the task.

The most critical lines in the Dragon emerge from this position:

image

White’s three main tries here are 9.Bc4, 9.g4 and 9.0-0-0. Jones treats the first two in Volume 1, and the third in Volume 2. He recommends 9…Be6 against 9.g4, and more than half of Volume 2 is devoted to sidelines. The bulk of the work focuses on 9.Bc4 and 9.0-0-0.

Against 9.Bc4, the traditional main line, Jones has two recommendations. His primary repertoire choice is the Topalov Variation (9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5), and I take it as a good sign that Jones has continued to play the line post-publication. White can dodge the Topalov with 10.h4, leading Jones to also include coverage of the Soltis (10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5) and Burnett (12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5 15.b3 b4!) Variations. Readers are thus presented with two options against the Yugoslav.

9.0-0-0 is perhaps the more critical variation in modern practice, and just under half of Volume 2 is devoted to it. After 9.0–0–0 d5 Jones analyzes 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 (the current main line of the Dragon; if 12.Nxd5 Jones recommends 12…cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7) 12…Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 when two repertoire choices are offered: the slightly offbeat 14…Qa5 15.b3 Be6!? and 14…Qc7. After 10.Kb1 Black should play 10… Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6!, and in case of 10.Qe1, Jones plumps for 10… e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.exd5 Nxd5.

[Here is a summary of these lines in replayable format.]

The repertoire presented in the two volumes of The Dragon resembles that of Peter Heine Nielsen on his recent two DVD set for ChessBase (The Sicilian Dragon for the Tournament Player), although they are not identical. Nielsen’s videos are very good in terms of explanation, but they cannot begin to match the density of information presented in Jones’ books.

And make no mistake – these are dense books. The analysis is comprehensive almost to the point of pedantry, as is typical for Quality Chess titles. Given the nature of the opening in question, such obsessive detail is perhaps warranted.

Some bones are thrown to those of us unburdened with photographic memories. There is a useful twenty page section on typical Dragon themes in Volume 1, and Jones is careful to point out standard motifs as they arise in his analysis. His notes are surprisingly verbose given how much ground he has to cover.

The two volumes of Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon provide a thorough and tested repertoire for the hardcore Dragoneer. You don’t need to be a Grandmaster to read them, but stronger players will surely derive more benefit from the sophisticated analysis. Players new to the Dragon might want to start with Nielsen’s DVDs.

Mastering Chess Middlegames

This review has been printed in the February 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Panchenko, Alexander. Mastering Chess Middlegames: Lectures from the All-Russian School of Grandmasters. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056916091. PB 240pp. List $24.95, currently $20.75 at Amazon.

How important is it to study tactics? Are they the royal road to chess excellence? I usually avoid debates on this topic in Internet forums, as they never seem to lead anywhere good, but a recent exchange on the Reddit Chess sub-forum prompted me to revisit the question.

Responding to a topic titled “Why do people stress tactics so much,” IM and chess.com head-honcho Danny Rensch reasoned as follows: while he himself was trained in the ‘Russian’ style, with a thorough grounding in positional play and endgames, he could see why some stress tactics so highly. “Tactics eventually decide every game. No matter what. At every level.” Rensch now believes that “teaching tactics first and foremost… is a good idea so that [his] students can start winning games.”

Intensive tactical study is doubtless necessary for chess improvement. Note, however, how Rensch immediately qualifies his statement: “…[w]ith balance of course.” Because tactics decide games, they can lead to more wins and increased enjoyment. Players who win are more likely to stick around long enough to learn the “advanced planning and strategical principles” that “govern who gets good tactics.”

Reading all of this, I was reminded of the famed lament of Rudolf Spielmann, a great attacking player from the early 20th century. “I can see combinations as well as Alekhine,” he said, “but I cannot get to the same positions.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the tactics-only approach. The tactician always has a puncher’s chance, but if your opponent hangs no pieces or mates, the only way to make use of your tactical prowess is to play into a position where the tactics exist.

There are plenty of primers of positional chess around, with Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, Silman’s Reassess Your Chess and Stean’s Simple Chess being some of my favorites. A new book from New in Chess represents a slightly different approach to the problem of getting good positions (and defending bad ones).

Alexander Panchenko was a leading Soviet coach, on par with Chebanenko, Kart, Lukin and perhaps even Dvoretsky. If he is known to an American audience, it is for his two-volume endgame manual The Theory and Practice of Chess Endings. His new book, Mastering Chess Middlegames: Lectures from the All-Russian School of Grandmasters, is (like the endgame volumes) rooted in his lectures at the “Panchenko school.”

Mastering Chess Middlegames is not a textbook, despite its being drawn from Panchenko’s lecture notes. It is an inspirational set of examples that illustrate common middlegame themes and tasks – attack, defense and prophylaxis, realizing an advantage, playing equal positions, etc. – along with typical play in important material configurations. Each chapter concludes with sets of positions for solving and playing out with a training partner.

This approach to improvement – the study of illustrative examples rounded out by practical experience – is much the same as found in more advanced books by Aagaard or Dvoretsky. In contrast to those works, probably best suited for experts and above, Panchenko’s book can be profitably read by ambitious class players.

Grandmasters Rublevsky and Timofeev note in their contributions to Panchenko’s book the centrality of defense in his teaching. Three chapters, nearly a quarter of the book, are devoted to this theme. In Chapter 2, ‘Defense,’ Panchenko provides 47 lightly annotated positions, some famous and some less so, arranged under a number of subheadings. 15 positions are given for solving, and 6 for playing out. Here is one of the positions to solve. Can White (on the move) save the game?

image

Mastering Chess Middlegames is a practical guide to navigating standard middlegame situations and themes with an emphasis on active learning. Reading it will not replace or undercut the need for tactical study. After working through its pages, however, and honing your skills in solving typical middlegame problems, you might fulfill Spielmann’s dream and find yourself in the types of positions from which combinations flow.

Solution:

E22 Study by Gleb Zakhodyakin 1930
1.g7+ Nxg7 (1…Kg8 2.Ng4) 2.Nf7+ Kg8 3.Bc5 f1=Q 4.Nh6+ Kh8 5.Bd6 The black king is caught in the corner, the knight cannot move because of Bd6-e5+, and taking the bishop with the queen on d6 or e5 allows Nh6-f7+. Draw.

Staying Relevant

This review has been printed in the January 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Tadic, Branko, and Josip Asik, eds. Chess Informant 125: Enigma Edition. Belgrade: Sahovski Informator, 2015. ISBN 9788672970791. PB 344p.  List $39.99 (book), $29.99 (cd / download), $49.99 (book & cd).

Sometime after the first few issues were published beginning in 1966, Tigran Petrosian famously derided the upcoming generation of players as mere “children of the Informant.” He believed that the explosive popularity of the Chess Informant series of books, which featured theoretically important games analyzed by top players, was stripping his beloved game of creativity and reducing it to a contest of memory.

If the Informant was the first paradigm shift in chess informatics, the arrival of the Internet, chess engines and databases effected the second. Few sectors of the chess world have been as disrupted dramatically by this shift as have periodicals.

When the Informants – and Chess Life, for that matter – were first published, it was standard for weeks or months to pass between a game’s being played and published. Today games from even minor tournaments are available on the Internet the day they’re played. How can something like the Informant stay relevant in the age of the machines?

The latest issue, Informant #125, is an attempt to answer that question.

My first Informant was #51, published in 1991. It was fairly representative of the series as a whole. The book began with the announcement of the best games and novelties from the previous issue, followed by 637 games densely annotated in the trademark Informant languageless commenting system. It concluded with game and annotator indices, lists of FIDE rated events and player ratings, and a selection of interesting combinations and endings played in the previous six months. (The series was then bi-annual. It now appears quarterly.)

Compare this with Informant #125, published this past October. The first thing you notice is that half the book is written in full, flowing English prose! This is the culmination of a series of editorial decisions that began with issue #113 and reach their zenith here. Some of the traditional apparatus – the best game and novelty, the list of major rated tournaments, the combinations and endings sections – have been retained. The languageless annotated games section also remains, and just over 200 games appear in #125.

The bulk of the book consists of English-language articles, and this is where the Informant brand makes its stand for relevancy. There are plenty of places to find raw game scores and even annotated games on the web, including The Week in Chess, chessbase.com, chess24.com, and uschess.org. An ambitious amateur, armed with an engine and a database, might even do a passable job in answering most of her own questions about specific moves.

What is missing from most of the reporting found on the Internet is perspective, and that’s exactly what the English-language articles in Informant #125 bring to the table. It’s one thing to let an engine show you ‘better’ moves and numerical evaluations, and entirely another to have a Grandmaster explain thought processes and key decisions. Periodicals remain relevant when they do what engines can’t – they provide color and context that only human expertise can deliver.

Typical of this ‘color and context’ is the coverage of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup in #125. Three Grandmasters treat the tournament in some detail, with seven games from the event receiving comprehensive annotations. Karsten Müller’s endgame column, here dealing with rook against bishop endings, is always worth reading, and Mauricio Flores Rios’ piece on Carlsen’s problems in the 2015 Stavanger tournament is a gem.

Not every one of the articles in #125 is a hit. While it is interesting to see how a Super-GM like Morozevich picks apart a line in the Rubinstein French, the piece feels rather impressionistic despite its length. I also wonder about the overlap between Kotronias’ 2.c3 Sicilian repertoire, the 7th(!) and final installment of which appears in this issue, and his forthcoming book on the Anti-Sicilians with Quality Chess.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the book can be found in its list of annotators. Very few top players now annotate their games for the Informant, with the bulk of the work having been farmed out to in-house analysts. This used to be the main strength of the series – the list of annotators in #51 is a Who’s Who of chess at that time – and while the in-house staff does fine work, there is no substitute for notes provided by the combatants themselves.

Informant #125 goes some distance in proving that there is still room for periodicals in the Internet age. If they manage to bring more top annotators back into the fold, they may well reclaim their place as the preeminent series in the chess world.

Dealing with 1.d4?

This review has been printed in the December 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Schandorff, Lars. Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982941. PB 264pp. List 29.95.

Sielecki, Christof. Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781941096. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Svidler, Peter. The Grünfeld According to Svidler (ebook). Available for $19.99 as a standalone product at chess24.com or as part of their Premium membership package.

In May I reviewed six books on the Sicilian, thus helping to put 1.e4 effectively out of business. (Ha.) But what about 1.d4? How can Black hope to respond to such a move? Fear not, dear reader: this month I look at three recent books which aim to help us with that very problem.

Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav is Lars Schandorff’s latest book with Quality Chess. Taking the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 as a starting point, Schandorff offers a complete repertoire in just 264 pages. This is no mean feat, as he covers both the Botvinnik and Moscow variations along with the 8…Bb7 Meran and assorted sidelines.

Strong players are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their opening research. Schandorff’s coverage of the Botvinnik variation is inspired, at least in part, by the games of the ICCF GM Alexandr Efremov, and he uses some of Efremov’s innovations in blazing a path to safety for Black. His analysis runs well past move thirty in key lines. While he does not skirt the need for memory work, Schandorff offers readers sufficient and welcome signposts to assist in the task.

Because Schandorff is so concise in his analysis, a few details are missing. Some move order technicalities in the Botvinnik are glossed over, and readers must supplement the book with study of the Exchange Slav, Queen’s Gambit Exchange variation, or the Marshall Gambit depending on how they choose to get to his tabiya. Neither issue detracts greatly from the book, which lives up to the heady promise of its title.

Christof Sielecki is new to the chess publishing world, but he’s very well known to his twenty thousand subscribers on YouTube as ‘chessexplained.’ With his new book from Everyman, titled Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian, readers are presented with a complete repertoire after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6.

In his introduction to the book, Sielecki explains his rationale for what follows. Most Nimzo repertoires have followed what he calls a ‘light-squared’ approach, where play in the center with …d7-d5 and fianchettoing the bishop with …b7-b6 are standard motifs. One might think of Karpov’s trademark approach to combatting the 4.e3 Nimzo as emblematic in this regard.

Sielecki, in contrast, tends to recommend lines that follow a ‘dark-squared’ approach, placing central pawns on dark squares. While not all of his repertoire choices follow this path to the letter – see the anti-Hübner lines (chapters 6 and 7) in the 4.e3 Nimzo as examples – many variations share strategic themes, making them easier to learn. The Bogo and ‘Catalan-Bogo’ lines share the same general philosophy.

My silicon friends and I spent some time checking Sielecki’s analysis in the two lines for White that I know best (4.Qc2 and 4.f3). I found his analysis to be comprehensive, well sourced and well explained. The variations occasionally become heavily nested, making things hard to follow, and I abhor the ‘French flaps’ that have become standard for Everyman paperbacks. Here again, the overall quality of Sielecki’s book greatly outweighs these small defects.

The final book under review this month isn’t really a book at all. For months after the 2014 appearance of Peter Svidler’s magisterial series on the Grünfeld for chess24.com, anxious viewers longed for the set of analysis files promised by Svidler. They were published earlier this year as an eBook, and they were worth the wait.

The eBook version of The Grünfeld according to Svidler contains all of the analysis presented in the video series along with much, much more. Take the very sharp position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 c6 7.e4, for example. In the videos Svidler proposes the novelty 7…Bg7 while also briefly analyzing three alternatives for Black. The eBook contains a dramatically fuller account of 7…Bg7 along with complete analysis of the three alternatives.

There is no better guide to the Grünfeld than Svidler, and his analysis in this eBook borders on the astounding. The eBook can only be accessed in your browser, and – perhaps due to concerns over piracy – there is no easy way to save the text other than to copy it manually into your database. The effort, however, is entirely worth it.

Of the three books reviewed this month, Sielecki’s is probably the ‘simplest,’ suitable for the ambitious club player. Schandorff and Svidler present very sophisticated repertoires that require good memories and, in the most critical lines, very strong nerves. All three can be warmly recommended, but as always, readers should heed the Delphic oracle and know themselves when buying.

Diving into Databases

BigBase / MegaBase 2016

Correspondence Database 2015.

The Week in Chess (TWIC)

Paramount Chess Database.

———————————————–

When I was in high school and learning about the basics of computer science, I was taught an acronym to underscore the importance of having clean data to work with: GIGO, or ‘Garbage in, Garbage out.’ You can have all the fantastic algorithms and formula you like, but if your data is in poor shape, you’ll never come close to the results you desire.

The same is true of chess data. You can buy the fanciest GUI (graphical user interface) the market has to offer, and you can collect all of the strongest engines around, but if you’re working with poor quality data, your research will suffer for it. Fortunately for us, there are a number of high quality databases out there, each fulfilling a specific set of needs for different types of users.

In this review I’ll look at four (or five, depending on how you look at things) of the most important databases out there, and as we will see, there is something useful for just about everyone. All of them are available in ChessBase’s native data format, and two (TWIC and Paramount) are also available in .pgn format, making them readable by those using GUIs other than ChessBase or Fritz.

Big / MegaBase 2016

There’s no way around it. You need a large reference database if you’re going to do any serious chess research or study. Online databases like chess-db.com, chessgames.com and ChessBase’s own online database are no substitute. They require internet connections and you can’t easily manipulate online data. The largest and most well-known of these reference databases are Big Database (BigBase) and Mega Database (MegaBase) 2016 from ChessBase.

BigBase and MegaBase each contain over 6.46 million games running from the earliest recorded games through October of this year. The database is searchable by player, tournament, and annotator (among other things), and you can access various indices or ‘keys’ for openings, endgames, strategic and tactical themes. Note the last three keys are not accessible in the default ChessBase 12/13 settings. You can access them by going to Options – Misc – Use ‘Theme Keys.’

Mega 2016 keys

You might suspect, given the name of the product, that each year brings a new version of the database to the market. And you would be correct to do so. The 2015 release of MegaBase contained 6,161,344 games, and the data wranglers at ChessBase have bumped that total to 6,466,288 in the 2016 edition. About half of these games have appeared in issues of ChessBase Magazine and ChessBase Magazine Extra, but 166,692 of them are entirely new to the ecosystem.

Mega 2016 Sources

While the majority are from 2014 and 2015 events, there are some historical additions as well. Among them are 18 games played by Botvinnik, 14 by Alekhine, and 9 by Spassky.

There are a number of similarities between BigBase and MegaBase. The number of games in each product is identical, as are the indices and keys. So what distinguishes them? MegaBase comes with two additional features that BigBase lacks: the inclusion of annotated games and a year’s worth of weekly updates. [MegaBase also comes with an updated version of PlayerBase, which collects rating data and pictures for thousands of players, but since I don’t use the feature, I will refrain from commenting on it.]

The 2016 version of MegaBase includes over seventy five thousand games with named annotators. This represents an increase of 3425 annotated games over the 2015 edition. While regulars like Atalik, Ftacnik and Marin provide notes to Super-GM games, there are also analyzed games by lesser-known combatants. Hundreds of annotated games from John Donaldson and Elliot Winslow are new to this edition, all of which come from amateur contests at the Mechanics Institute in the past few years.

MegaBase also comes with an update service, where weekly downloads of 5000 games are provided for a year. As a point of comparison, we are currently at update number 49 for MegaBase 2015, and 245713 games have been added to the database with all updates included.

MegaBase Update Service

This means, by the way, that not every game submitted to ChessBase is included in these weekly updates. Apples to oranges comparisons aren’t possible, but about sixty thousand or so games are in the 2016 database and not in the fully updated 2015 version.

BigBase and MegaBase are the preeminent reference databases available today. They are not perfect. Tim Harding has remarked on problems (some of which appear to have been fixed) with Blackburne’s games, for example, and John Watson never played in the 1966 British U14 Championship. Doubtless there remains plenty of tournaments, like the 1995 MCC/ACF Summer International (whose bulletin sits on my desk), just waiting to be entered into the computer. But no other database comes close to these two in terms of comprehensiveness and cleanliness of data. Anyone doing serious chess work, from openings to history to biography, needs one of these two products.

BigBase 2016 is available for download or post for €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT for those outside the EU). MegaBase 2016, which includes the annotated games, the weekly updates and the PlayerBase, costs €159.90 ($147.93 without VAT), and updates from previous versions of MegaBase costs €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT). The Update option comes with the annotated games, weekly updates, etc.

Correspondence Database 2015

Opening theorists are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their work. In his newly released Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav, for instance, Lars Schandorff makes extensive use of games by the Russian Correspondence Grandmaster Efremov in working out the theory of the Botvinnik Variation. Such scrutiny is entirely logical if you think about it. The best correspondence players use all possible resources – books, computers, whatever! – over a period of months to choose their moves, making their games a veritable gold mine for opening ideas and novelties.

This is one area in which both the Big and Mega Databases are lacking, as they contain only over-the-board games. It is possible to cobble together a database of correspondence games by going to the websites of major correspondence organizations (ICCF, IECC, BdF, LSS) and collecting published games, but instead you might consider the Correspondence Database 2015 from ChessBase.

The Correspondence Database 2015 (CorrBase) contains 1,274,161 games played by post and e-mail from 1804 through January 2015. (The dates in this database seem to refer to the start date for the games.) 5649 of those games are annotated. The 2015 version of CorrBase also contains over 200,000 new games when compared with its 2013 incarnation, and it includes games from all of the leading correspondence groups.

So what will you find here? Let’s look at the games of ICCF-GM Aleksandr Gennadiev Efremov, the ‘hero’ of the early chapters of Schandorff’s new book. 577 of Efremov’s games appear in CorrBase 2015, including dozens of games (with both colors) in the Semi-Slav. The latest of these began sometime in 2013, and just about every one of Schandorff’s citations can be found in CorrBase.

CorrBase 2015 is an incredibly useful resource for the serious opening theorist or correspondence player. Because there is no update service (the TeleChess sections of CBM notwithstanding) discerning users will want to search out the latest games each month at organizational websites and add them to their databases. The effort is entirely worth it.

The Correspondence Database 2015 is available via download or post for €99.90 ($92.42 without VAT). An upgrade from earlier versions is available for €59.90 ($55.42 without VAT).

The Week in Chess

Not everyone can afford to buy MegaBase, and for those who do buy BigBase, there remains the problem of keeping the database up-to-date. For both of these problems there is Mark Crowther’s indispensable e-magazine The Week in Chess (TWIC).

The first issue of TWIC appeared in September of 1994. Each week since then, Crowther has produced a text report on the week’s chess news along with a database of new games in ChessBase and .pgn formats. Because both have always been available to download at no cost, TWIC has become a weekly must-see for players of all strengths. Indeed, we get a sense of just how central Crowther’s work has become with this tweet from Anish Giri:

Giri's tweet

We should cut Giri some slack. He was, after all, on his honeymoon!

Every issue of TWIC, from #1 (Sept 17, 1994) through the current day (#1094 at the time of writing), can be downloaded from The Week in Chess website. The databases from issue #920 (June 25, 2012) forward are also available. Combining those 175 files, a user could create a free database with 495,966 (482,290 after killing doubles) games to study. Among them we find 640 games played by Vachier-Lagrave (the most in the database), 516 by Nakamura, 507 by Svidler, and 7 miserable efforts by Hartmann.

This would be sufficient as a first step in chess research and database use, but Crowther also offers his readers the possibility of downloading a copy of his complete, private database for a donation of £30. The database contains every game ever published in TWIC, and as of the last version (#1-1093) it contained nearly 1.8 million games.

Crowther’s £30 offer is, in my opinion, very good value for the money. This is all the more true once you consider that you can keep it updated for free by downloading new issues of TWIC each week. I also suspect that you would boost your karmic standing by supporting Crowther’s tremendous efforts with a donation.

Owners of BigBase, who do not receive weekly updates as part of their purchase, can also use new issues of TWIC to update BigBase. Just keep in mind that the standardized names used by ChessBase and TWIC are different, so if you’re interested in studying (for instance) Kramnik’s games, you’ll have to look at ‘Kramnik,Vladimir’ (BigBase) and ‘Kramnik,V’ (TWIC) to find them all.

Paramount Chess Database

The Paramount Chess Database (Paramount) represents a complementary approach to chess research. Instead of the millions of games found in the databases discussed above, Paramount only contains 113,832 games with a roughly 70/40 split between complete games and fragments. What’s the value in that, you might ask? These are the collected games of issues 1-123 of the Chess Informant series of books, legendary among players since the first one was published in 1966. There are decades of history and knowledge collected in these games.

What has traditionally separated the Informant series from other chess publications was its annotators. It was a badge of honor to have your game selected for inclusion in the Informant, and just about every major player since the 60s has annotated for the series. All of those annotations are collected in the Paramount Database, and that’s what differentiates this products from those discussed above.

Here are some examples: there are 60 games annotated by Kasparov in MegaBase 2016, and 592 in Paramount. Anand annotated 506 games in Paramount and 267 in MegaBase. Older players like Larsen, Petrosian and Tal each have hundreds of annotated games in Paramount, while their notes in MegaBase can cumulatively be counted on two hands.

Why is this important? Others might provide competent notes, especially in the age of the computer, but games annotated by the combatants themselves have a special value. This is where the Paramount database shines, albeit with one caveat. You are more likely to find annotations by today’s Super GMs in MegaBase than in Paramount due to editorial shifts in Belgrade.

How might a player use the Paramount database? Two avenues come to mind. First, this database is very well suited to doing the kind of historical opening research championed by Kasparov in Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess: Revolution in the 70s. It’s hard to think of a better way to gain insight into, say, the Zaitsev Ruy than to actually study the games and notes that created modern theory, most of which appear in Paramount. The database can also be used to study the most important games of specific players, many of which are (as noted above) annotated by the players themselves.

One nice feature of the Paramount package is the way in which the data is presented after installation. You get a complete database of all the games, but dozens of smaller databases organized by opening, player and annotator are also included. This makes studying a specific player or important opening very easy. Each issue of the Informant appears in its own separate file, and the data is also provided in .pgn format.

Paramount databases

The Paramount Chess Database is available by download or post for $199 from the publisher, although you can find discounted deals at various chess retailers on the web.

Summary

There is no substitute for having a large research database such as MegaBase or BigBase at your disposal for pre-game preparation, opening research and general chess study. Because MegaBase comes with annotated games, weekly updates and the PlayerBase, it is the premier database product on the market today. Serious opening analysts and correspondence players should absolutely consider supplementing BigBase or MegaBase with CorrBase.

Not everyone can afford MegaBase. For those on a budget, BigBase is an adequate stand-in for MegaBase. For those less interested in historical games and more in recent examples, Mark Crowther’s complete The Week in Chess database is perhaps a more worthy and cost-effective replacement.

Downloading the free weekly updates of TWIC and maintaining a stand-alone TWIC database should be part of every ambitious player’s weekly schedule, even if you own MegaBase and use the update subscription service. Games appear at different times in the TWIC and MegaBase updates, so if you’re doing pre-game scouting on an opponent, you should have a look at both sources.

The Paramount Chess Database has a different role to play in your research portfolio. Paramount is a wonderful historical document, a font of opening ideas to be mined and a tremendous source of well-annotated games by the best players of the past half-century. It is a superb complement to your reference database of choice, but it does not replace the need for one.