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.


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.

The Spice of (Chess) Life

This review has been printed in the November 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.


Tukmakov, Vladimir. Risk & Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915957. PB 240pp. List $26.95.

Chess, unlike poker, is a game of complete information. All of the pieces are on the board, and none are hidden from sight. Each player has access to the same information when deciding on their moves, but what is done with that knowledge will naturally vary from person to person.

In poker, players lack knowledge of one or more cards belonging to other players or the community. This lack of complete knowledge allows players to bluff, to act as if they have hands that depart dramatically from what they actually possess. One of the reasons that televised poker became such a fad in the ‘aughts’ was the introduction of the hole cam, giving viewers more information than the players themselves and exposing the logic (or lack thereof) of betting actions.

On the face of it, it would seem impossible to bluff in a game of complete information like chess. Once a move is played, it is what it is, and a player cannot dissimulate its strength or weakness. And yet, as Vladimir Tukmakov shows us in Risk and Bluff in Chess: The Art of Taking Calculated Risks, carefully modulated risk and the well-timed bluff can be powerful tools when used judiciously.

Tukmakov, who moonlights as the personal second of Anish Giri, is the author of two previous books. In the first, Profession: Chessplayer (Grandmaster at Work), Tukmakov tells the story of his chess career, rising from promising junior to member of the Soviet Olympic team and top-fifty player for nearly two decades. In the second, Modern Chess Preparation: Getting Ready for Your Opponent in the Information Age, he sketches the history of chess preparation and treats in fascinating detail the role of the computer in contemporary preparation.

This theme – the centrality of the ‘silicon friend’ (SF) in modern chess – recurs in Risk and Bluff in Chess. Risky moves are quickly debunked by even the casual fan armed with the latest engine. Brilliant bluffs are ridiculed. What is forgotten is that chess remains a game played between two humans, each of whom is fallible, subject to emotion and fatigue. Tukmakov’s book reminds us that it is still possible, and in some cases necessary, to risk and bluff our way to victory in the age of the machines.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is less a how-to manual than it is a series of inspirational vignettes. We meet the hero of the tale in its first chapter. While Tukmakov sees historical antecedents in Lasker and Alekhine, and contemporaries in Larsen, Spassky and Stein, it is in the games of Mikhail Tal that he identifies a mutation in how we assess risk in chess.

Tal possessed the unique ability to steer games towards unbalanced positions where his “remaining pieces acquired a completely different value, and operated with a harmony that only he could achieve.” (45) This is not to say that he played incorrectly. The computer, as Tukmakov notes, reveals that in many cases Tal’s sacrifices were entirely sound. He brought an “unrepeatable magic” (47) to the game, and that magic brought him to the world championship.

In the remainder of the book, we see how risk and bluff function in various situations, including the opening (chapter 2), defense (chapter 6), and must-win games (chapter 8). Of particular interest for the practical player is the fourth chapter, titled “The Logic of the Irrational.”

Granting, as Tukmakov does, that not everyone can play like Tal, what might a reader take from this chapter? In discussing positions where the board seems to have been constructed almost at random, Tukmakov offers two pointers. One must rely on one’s intuition as “one cannot calculate the incalculable.” (124) There is also a rule that Tukmakov finds useful: “non-standard positions require non-standard decisions.” Examples are drawn from the games of Larsen, Gelfand, Kortchnoi and Tukmakov himself (among others) to illustrate these ideas, and the chapter wraps up with a ‘Conclusion’ that reads like a coach’s pep talk.

Risk and Bluff in Chess is a fascinating study of two often misunderstood themes in chess. It is not an instructional work in the usual sense of the term, but it might inspire readers to add a bit of spice to their play. Tukmakov’s analysis tends towards the comprehensive, so some sophistication is required to take its full measure. All the same, I suspect that most players who have a taste for complication in chess would enjoy this book.

For the kids?

This review has been printed in the October 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.


Hertan, Charles. Basic Chess Openings for Kids: Play Like a Winner from Move One. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-9056915971. HB 160pp. List $18.95.

Müller, Karsten. Chess Endgames for Kids. London: Gambit Publications, 2015. ISBN 978-1910093610. HB 128pp. List $16.95; currently $13.56 at Amazon.

The number of children playing chess continues to grow, but there remains relatively few good books for them to study. Part of this involves a generational shift away from paper and towards the world of apps, but I suspect that it also has to do with the difficulty of actually writing for children. There are precious few instructional works that manage to entertain and enlighten without sliding into farce.

Two books explicitly aimed at kids – Basic Chess Openings for Kids by Charles Hertan, and Chess Endgames for Kids by Karsten Müller – have recently been published. Both authors have impressive track records, but do these new efforts really work as books for children?

Basic Chess Openings for Kids is Charles Hertan’s fourth book with New in Chess, and his third written for children. The new book has much in common with its predecessors (Power Chess for Kids and Power Chess for Kids 2), including its terminology and the four helpful characters who ask questions along the way. For those unfamiliar with Hertan’s earlier works, a brief chapter on piece value and counting attackers / defenders is included, as are a glossary of terms and twenty quiz positions.

Hertan believes that the main goal of the opening can be summarized as follows: “get your pieces into action quickly and effectively!” (10) He argues that development or mobility is thus key to good opening play, and to that end, he devotes full chapters (2-5) to developing knights, bishops, rooks and queens. Chapter 6 focuses on the relation between pawn and piece play, analyzing two pairs of opening ‘schemes’ to make his points. The book concludes with an outline of five typical opening mistakes in Chapter 7.

Hertan’s basic strategy – investigating what each piece ‘likes’ to unpack good piece play – is solid, and his ideas-based approach to the opening is good for beginners. The reading level is not simple, so it might vex young readers, and I do worry a bit about the wide variance in the level of ideas presented. It’s one thing for beginners to see why knights like to be on c3 and f3, and another entirely for them to grasp the concept of outposts or knight maneuvers in the Ruy Lopez. I suspect that this is a book that would reward re-reading as players climb the ratings list.

Karsten Müller is, with apologies to our own Daniel Naroditsky, the world’s leading authority on the endgame. Having authored three classic books and fourteen DVDs on the topic, Chess Endgames for Kids is his work aimed at the youth market. The book is very good indeed, but I’m not convinced that it’s really designed for kids.

Chess Endgames for Kids consists of 50 distinct lessons or mini-chapters. Some of the initial lessons cover very basic endgames, including king and queen versus king and king and rook versus king. The complexity ramps up dramatically, however, and it does so very quickly.

Just about half the book is devoted to king and pawn endings and rook and pawn endings. The king and pawn coverage begins with the rule of the square, key squares and the opposition. I’m not convinced that most juniors need to know more than this before they reach Class C. Reti’s famous study (Lesson 12) is more aesthetically pleasing than educational for the beginner, and Bahr’s Rule (Lesson 15) is simply overkill.

We find much the same in the lessons on rook and pawn endings. The analysis of basic positions like Philidor and Lucena (Lessons 34-36) is useful and appropriate for novice players, but even Hikaru Nakamura lacked knowledge – or so he claimed on Twitter, anyway – of the Vančura position (Lesson 38) in his draw against Radjabov at the Gashimov Memorial in 2014.

Knowing Vančura is obviously important, as is the concept of the bodycheck in rook versus pawn endings (Lesson 32). The question is: for whom? Beginners would do probably do better with Winning Chess Endings by Seirawan or Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, and younger novices might best served by starting with Ten Ways to Succeed in the Endgame by Onions and Regis.

Chess Endgames for Kids is best seen as a terse endgame primer, slightly less complex than similar efforts by de la Villa (100 Endgames You Must Know) and Nunn (Understanding Chess Endgames). It is excellent for players with some experience who need to learn key theoretical endings, and it’s a steal at $16.95 in hardcover.

Book Note: Karolyi on Tal

Because there are just too many books coming out to keep up with, I’ll be doing some brief book notes along with my longer, in-depth reviews and essays. This is the second of those notes. – JH

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 1: 1949-1959, The Magic of Youth. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982774. PB 448pp. List $29.95, currently $23.70 on Amazon.

Karolyi, Tibor. Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2: 1960-1971, The World Champion. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982798. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently $21.74 on Amazon.

In the course of researching the games of Mikhail Tal for a forthcoming Chess Life review, I had the opportunity – and the pleasure – to spend some time with Tibor Karolyi’s two volumes on Tal. (A third, covering the remainder of Tal’s playing career, is in press.) Excluding Tal’s own efforts, there are no finer books on Tal in print.

Karolyi follows a recipe in these two books that he first cooked up in his two books on Karpov for Quality Chess. (Those books, Karpov’s Strategic Wins 1: The Making of a Champion and Karpov’s Strategic Wins 2: The Prime Years, can also be recommended.) He breaks Tal’s career down by year, interspersing deeply annotated games with discussion of tournament situation, personalities, and Tal’s personal life. Summaries of each year’s results conclude chapters, and indexes by player and page number are included along with a rough index of themes found in Tal’s games.

While Karolyi includes many of Tal’s most famous sacrificial efforts, he also analyses more ‘workman-like’ games, including no small number of his endgames. Karolyi is a diligent analyst, and while he (like many of his Quality Chess brethren) can sometimes present more analysis than can be easily digested, this is surely preferable to offering too little. The image of Tal we get through these books is of a much more well-rounded player than commonly thought.

Karolyi also spends a lot of time, and obviously spent a lot of effort, contextualizing each game. In some cases he sheds light on the identity of Tal’s opponent, while in others he sketches the situation Tal found himself in while playing the game. Many personal anecdotes are relayed, and the book is much richer for it.

69 fully annotated games are found in Volume 1, while Volume 2 contains 66 complete scores. Dozens of fragments and game citations (some with notes) are given as well. When the third volume is released, Karolyi will have given the chess world a comprehensive and compelling account of Tal the player and Tal the man. It will only further burnish the legend that is Mikhail Tal.

Learning from Gelfand

This review has been printed in the September 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.


Gelfand, Boris, and Jacob Aagaard. Positional Decision Making in Chess. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1-78483-006-9. 288pp. HB $34.95. [Note that Quality Chess has only released the hard cover version to specialized chess retailers, and a paperback should be on Amazon in the nearish future.]

Positional Decision Making in Chess is Boris Gelfand’s second book, the first being his 2005 My Most Memorable Games. Were it simply another batch of his annotated games, it would well be worth our attention. Very few of the world’s elite put pen to paper (fingers to keys?) while they are still active players.

Most of Kasparov’s many books emerged only after his retirement. Books by Anand and Kramnik predate their World Championship reigns, while the bulk of Shirov’s output now comes in DVD form. Recent works by Giri and Polgar are excellent, but Giri’s best years are ahead of him while Polgar has retired from tournament play.

So when a player like Boris Gelfand – a six-time Candidate, the 2012 Challenger for the World Championship and the 13th ranked active player in the world – writes [1] a book about his games, we chess bibliophiles tend to take notice. And all the more in this case, for Gelfand has given us a superlative book.

My Most Memorable Games is, on the whole, a traditional ‘best games’ collection. It is evident from even the first pages of Positional Decision Making in Chess that Gelfand has something else in mind with his new book. As he writes in the Preface,

…the intention of this book is not to focus on the accuracy of the moves I made at the board… but on the thought process that led me to finding them in the first place. … [T]hroughout we have focused on the reasons for the decisions and plans I made, and also the limitations of my thinking during the game. (8)

While (sometimes copious) analysis of Gelfand’s games is provided, the real focus of the book is how Gelfand takes decisions over the board, with positional decisions front and center. The games of Akiba Rubinstein – Gelfand’s favorite player – are enlisted in this effort, and special emphasis is placed on Rubinstein’s influence on Gelfand along with his relevance for contemporary chess theory.

There is much to like here. It’s good to see Rubinstein get his due as player and theoretician, especially as there are very few legitimate books about him in print. Gelfand’s annotations are clear, and his descriptions of his opponents are both respectful and revealing. The book’s surprisingly personal feel is amplified by the photographs strewn throughout its pages.

For me, however, the central theme of the book only appears between the lines of the text: Gelfand’s relationship to the computer. No one can dispute the changes wrought on chess and its play by our silicon friends. Nor, if we are honest, can we overlook the way in which most players trust engine evaluations blindly, almost outsourcing their thinking to the computer. (Look at Twitter or the ICC chat during the next big tournament if you doubt this.)

What is most interesting to me about Positional Decision Making in Chess is seeing how Gelfand, a member of the last generation to come of age before the rise of the machines, thinks about engines and their limitations. Gelfand trusts his intuition – this word appears repeatedly in the text – and prefers to view engines as tools for understanding rather than as infallible oracles. Rarely have I seen such honest and practical discussion of the topic. For instance:

…I am a strong believer in the value of a chess education built on thorough knowledge of the classics [like Rubinstein – JH]. Any attempt to emulate the engines and their 2,000,000 moves a second is doomed to fail. We need to supplement calculation with all other weapons available. And one of these is intuition, which is strongly rooted in pattern recognition. (58)

Extremely often the computer will suggest moves that no human would consider. And when we do not feel it delivers us a clear understanding of why this move is good, I cannot see that it makes sense to follow its recommendations. (199)

If only those kibitzers on ICC would heed Gelfand’s warning!

By providing us a window into his decision making, and by showing us – warts and all – both the limits and triumphs of his thought, Boris Gelfand does much more than merely offer us edifying games to study. The author of Positional Decision Making in Chess is an exemplar for all of us who struggle to learn from the computer without succumbing to its siren call. This might well be the book of the year, and serious students of modern chess practice should not miss out on its lessons.

[1] I would be remiss if I did not mention the role of Gelfand’s ‘helper,’ Jacob Aagaard, in the construction of this book. Aagaard, himself a very well regarded author and pedagogue, recorded extensive discussions with Gelfand and used them as the basis for the written text. It appears that most of the conceptual content should be attributed to Gelfand, while the style, structure, and some of the pedagogy are Aagaard’s.

Teaching Tactical Awareness

This review has been printed in the August 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.


Schlepütz, Volker, and John Emms. The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook. London: Everyman Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1781941188. 336pp. PB $27.95.

It is the most common piece of advice given to the amateur player: “if you want to improve your chess, study tactics.” So, like the diligent students we are, that’s what we do.

We slog through pages and pages of bare diagrams, flipping to the back of the book to see what we missed. We try all the web-based tactics trainers, refusing to give in to frustration when our winning-but-not-winning-enough moves are marked wrong for reasons we can’t fathom. We head to our next tournament, chests puffed out and tactical Spidey-sense cranked to 11.

And then we miss a mate-in-two and lose to an eight-year old. And we wonder why on earth we waste our time with this stupid game.

There is little doubt that the study of tactics is indeed necessary, if not sufficient, for chess improvement. Still, those of us who have spent time with Blokh and Brennan and Reinfeld (not to mention chesstempo.com) know all-too-well the limitations of such study. It’s easy to find a killer shot when you know one exists in the position. It’s much harder when your clock is ticking away and there’s no teacher nudging you towards the correct move.

Not a few authors have made creative attempts to overcome this problem in their books. Some, like Emmanuel Neiman (Tune Your Chess Tactics Antenna) and Martin Weteschnik (Chess Tactics from Scratch), aim to teach you how to decipher typical positions and discover common tactical themes. Others, like Ray Chang (Practical Chess Exercises), broaden the range of exercises, forcing you to look beyond raw tactics in the search for the best move.

With The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook, Volker Schlepütz and John Emms also attempt to teach tactical awareness while avoiding the artificiality of bulk puzzle solving. Readers are presented with the raw scores of 120 games (or fragments of games) played by combatants rated from 1100-1700. They are instructed to play through the games, put on their “tactics detective hats,” and note the points where one or both players missed something. Points are given for each correct answer, and readers are encouraged to keep a running point total.

Here’s an example of a game (#75 in the book) contested between players rated somewhere between 1301 and 1500. What did one or both players miss? Answers at the end of the column.

Decrop,B – Hilven,G [C13]
Brasschaat, 2007

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bxf6 Nxf6 8.Bd3 b6 9.Bb5+ Nd7 10.Ne5 Bd6 11.Qg4 Bxe5 12.dxe5 [*]

I can see how readers would be attracted to this book and its method. Most of the game fragments are short enough to avoid taxing one’s attention, and the points system assists in keeping the reader involved and engaged in solving. There are, however, a few important limitations. Because most of the solving ends with the late opening or early middlegame (full games are given in the solutions), there is little engagement with endgame tactics or broader attacking themes. What’s more, the scent of artificiality is not fully expunged here, as all of the blunders are tactical in nature, and no credit is given for finding positional or strategic mistakes.

Part of me also wonders whether Schlepütz and Emms have really done something new here. Surely we can find precedent for this “unique framework” for tactical training in long-running solitaire chess columns by Danny King or Chess Life’s own Bruce Pandolfini. C.J.S. Purdy recommended covering and guessing the victor’s moves in annotated games back in 1947, something that ChessBase users can easily do by using the ‘training’ tab in the game window.

These caveats notwithstanding, I suspect that class players looking to improve tactically would find The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook useful, as would teachers looking for lesson ideas. Schlepütz and Emms may not have found a true novelty here, but the training method is fresh enough to warrant your consideration.


For White: 11.Qg4? “White started correctly by playing 10.Ne5, but 11.Qg4? doesn’t follow it up accurately. 11.Nxd6+! (2 points) clears the diagonal and 11…cxd6 12.Nxf7! forks queen and rook. After 12…Kxf7 the king has been attracted to a fatal square. 13.Qf3+ forks the king and rook, winning an exchange and a pawn overall. (2 points)” 11.Qf3 and 11.Nxf7 (2 points) are deemed lesser variants of 11.Nxd6!

For Black: 9…Nd7? “allows White to gain material, as shown above (1 point). Instead, Black should play 9…Bd7 (1 point). Earlier, Black should probably avoid 8…b6 which invites tactics by weakening both the a4-e8 and h1-a8 diagonals.”

A Dvoretsky Duo

Dvoretsky, Mark. For Friends & Colleagues: Volume II, Reflections on My Profession. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270035. PB 360pp. List $29.95, currently list price on Amazon.

Dvoretsky, Mark. Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2015. ISBN 978-1941270004. PB 360pp. List $24.95, currently $20ish on Amazon.

Reflections on My Profession is the second volume in Mark Dvoretsky’s autobiographical diptych. In my review of the first book in the series, titled Profession: Chess Coach, I described it as a “memoir of his life in chess.” Reflections on My Profession is a true companion volume to Profession: Chess Coach. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining – sometimes polemically – what Dvoretsky takes to be best practices for chess coaching and improvement. Reading the two together, we get a more holistic picture of Dvoretsky as a man and as a trainer than we would by reading either by themselves.

Reflections on My Profession consists of a series of essays, with most having been published elsewhere and reprinted here in updated form. There are three main divisions: “Competitions,” dealing with over-the-board play by him or his students; “Chess Literature: What and How to Read,” where Dvoretsky investigates (and in some cases, castigates) recent articles and books of interest; and “Training Mastery,” the bulk of the book, where Dvoretsky lays out the basic tenets of his training methods.

The first section of the book is mildly interesting, but mainly for the analysis. The second and the third sections are, in my opinion, of much greater value. Accordingly I will devote some lines to these two sections before moving on.

In his discussion of chess literature, Dvoretsky points us towards good annotators (Matthew Sadler and Grigory Sanakoev) and calls out charlatans (Hans Berliner). His preface to the Russian edition of John Nunn’s Secrets of Practical Chess is basically a list of book recommendations, and aspiring masters would do well to work their way through his choices.

In an aside, Dvoretsky argues (144) that classic books should be brought back into print, but with a twist. He describes the need for introducing a contemporary co-author who would correct analytical errors and introduce additional material. I suspect that it is not a coincidence that one of his recommended books, Spielmann’s The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, has just been republished by Russell with Karsten Müller playing the co-author’s role. Müller’s additions appear in blue, and he has also added what amounts to another book’s worth of material to the text. It looks promising.

The third section of Reflections on My Profession, devoted to chess training, consists of two main types of chapters. There are ‘practical’ chapters, where Dvoretsky offers readers problems to solve from his famed card index, and there are ‘theoretical’ chapters where he explains the role of the trainer and best practices for improvement.

Perhaps the clearest statement of his vision for chess training comes in the first chapter of this section, “Philosophy of Training Work.” Trainers must work to develop player’s strengths while overcoming their weaknesses. They do so by offering their pupils clear examples or ‘chess images’ for study, and also by providing them problems to solve. Dvoretsky is clear in his belief that chess improvement comes through practice. A good trainer provides her pupils the kinds of exercises that will burnish their strengths and mend their flaws, and it is only through consistent solving of problems that players can hope to obtain better results.

Dvoretsky describes the selection of appropriate problems for solving in “Solve for Yourself!” Most of his discussion, while interesting on an intellectual level, is of little use for the majority of readers. We aren’t strong enough to discern our own weaknesses, and our understanding limits our ability to create material for self-training. The problems used as examples can, however, be salvaged for training purposes. Recently I used five of them to good effect in a session with our Denker representative. Here’s one of them.


“White is up a rook and a pawn, but how can he defend himself from being mated?”

Dvoretsky’s path to chess improvement is not easy. If we leave aside the fact that most of us recoil from the kind of active learning he prescribes, there is still the matter of finding (a) appropriate and (b) sufficient positions. In a previous review I had lamented the fact that for all of his output, Dvoretsky had yet to publish a book of problems specifically for solving. An ambitious reader could mine Reflections on My Profession for suitable positions, as I did with our Denker rep, or she could turn to the second book under review in this essay.

Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking is a translation of three books that have appeared in German (Aufmerksamkeit gegenüber gegnerischen Möglichkeiten: Trainingshandbuch, Band 1; Ausschlussmethode & Falenspiel: Trainingshandbuch, Band 2; Prophylaktisches Denken: Trainingshandbuch, Band 3). This book, however, appears to have been translated from the original Russian, something that the bibliography (slight as it is) fails to make clear.

If Dvoretsky is known for one concept or insight, it is certainly that of prophylaxis. As he defines it in Secrets of Positional Play, prophylactic thinking is “the habit of constantly asking yourself what the opponent wants to do, what he would play if it were him to move, the ability to find an answer to this question and to take account of it in the process of coming to a decision.” (28) Recognizing Your Opponents Resources is, in a nutshell, a collection of problems for solving that all revolve around prophylaxis.

There are four chapters in this book. Each begins with a small lesson on the chapter’s theme, and this is followed by a batch of positions for solving along with their solutions. “Pay Attention to Your Opponent’s Resources” has 180 problems. “The Process of Elimination” has 106. “Traps” has 36, and “Prophylactic Thinking” has 154. (The polyglots among you will note that the chapter titles correspond rather well with the German titles listed above.) It is basically the puzzle book that Dvoretsky never published, until now.

In each chapter the problems tend to run from easier to harder, where ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ should be understood as being relative to Dvoretsky’s very high standards. Here are two from the chapter on “Prophylatic Thinking.” The first is the 7th in the problem set, while the second is the 152nd. White is to move in both cases.



(Solutions for both problems)

For Friends and Colleagues: Reflections on My Profession is something of a niche publication, and coaches, trainers and Dvoretsky acolytes will make up its main readership. Every 2000+ player looking for training material should pick up Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources. It’s hard to think of a book that provides the strong player more bang for his improvement buck, and it’s hard to think of another book that treats its topic so well.