Putting a Second in your Corner

This review has been printed in the April 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.

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There was a curious moment at the opening press conference for the 2013 World Championship Match. A local reporter asked the players to name their “seconds.” Anand answered first, cheerfully disclosing the makeup of his four person team. After thanking Anand for his “openness,” Carlsen said that he would not return the favor.

Why the secrecy? Why wouldn’t Carlsen reveal who he’d been working with?

And what’s a second anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a second was originally an assistant in dueling. If he could not negotiate a satisfactory means of regaining honor, your chosen second – usually a friend or family member – helped you in your preparation for battle and saw that the agreed conditions of the duel were met.

In chess, a second is something like a research assistant, a sparring partner, and a confidant all rolled into one. Because adjournments no longer exist, and because the opening has become so important in the post-Kasparov era, the modern second works primarily on openings.

Perhaps this was why Carlsen was so reluctant to name the members of his team. Knowing who your opponent employs as an opening analyst might give you some insight into their match preparation.

Carlsen must have known he’d face the same question in the run-up to the 2014 rematch with Anand, because, when asked, he had a prepared answer: “there’s the Dane [Peter Heine Nielsen], and there’s the Hammer [Jon Ludvig Hammer], and that’s about it.” But this was only half-true. Among Carlsen’s other, ‘secret’ assistants was Mickey Adams. Had Anand known this, he might well have predicted some of Carlsen’s openings in Sochi.

The wide availability of databases and powerful engines would seem to obviate the need for a second, but many world-class grandmasters still retain them. Garry Kasparov had Yuri Dokhoian as his second for many years; after Kasparov’s retirement, Dokhoian was hired by Sergey Karjakin. Elizbar Ubilava worked for Anand for about ten years before he was replaced by Peter Heine Nielsen. Nielsen was then poached by Team Carlsen before the 2013 Anand match, but he recused himself from that contest in the interest of fairness.

Right now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I might be a mere B player, but I also employ a second. In fact, I employ twelve of them, and for a price that is a true pittance, you can too.

ChessPublishing.com is a subscription-based opening analysis website owned and operated by Grandmaster Tony Kosten. The concept is simple. Recent games with opening innovations are annotated every month by leading theoreticians and sorted into sections. Each section update consists of approximately five to ten games. Subscribers can purchase access to one or more sections, and they can view both the monthly updates and archived data while their subscriptions remain active. They can also access their subscriptions through the Forward Chess app.

ChessPublishing.com divides its data into twelve sections. Because the way in which the sections are constructed is slightly idiosyncratic, let me list each section with its contents and its current author, and in the order that they appears on the website.

  • 1.e4 e5 (ECO C20-C99): GM Victor Mikhalevski covers the full range of the Open Games.
  • French (ECO C00-C19): No one knows the French better than IM John Watson, and he is your guide through the thickets of French theory.
  • Dragons (ECO B27, B34-39 & B70-79): The ever-popular Sicilian Dragon gets its own section, and GM Chris Ward is its long-time editor.
  • Open Sicilians (ECO B32-33, B40-49, B54-69 & B80-99): GM Michael Roiz is (at the time of writing) the highest rated section chief, and his updates cover all the non-Dragon Open Sicilians.
  • Anti-Sicilians (ECO B20-31 & B50-55): GM David Smerdon analyzes all of White’s attempts to avoid the Open Sicilian. He is a particular expert in the 2.c3 lines.
  • 1.e4… (ECO B01-B19): The remaining defenses to 1.e4 – Alekhine’s Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Pirc/Modern and the Scandinavian – are all found here, with new ideas carefully scrutinized by GM Neil McDonald.
  • 1.d4 d5 (ECO D06-66 & E01-09): IM Max Illingworth analyzes innovations in the Queen’s Gambit (Accepted and Declined), the Slav, the Semi-Slav, and the Catalan.
  • d-Pawn Specials (ECO A45-49 & D00-05): For the fanatics! Openings like the Colle, the London, the Torre and the Trompowsky are scrutinized by IM Richard Palliser. There is extensive coverage of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit in the archives.
  • King’s Indian (ECO A41-42, A53-55, A68-69 & E60-99): IM David Vigorito covers all the latest trends in the King’s Indian Defense. The Old Indian also appears here.
  • Nimzo & Benoni (ECO A40, A43-44, A50, A56, A60-79 & E10-59): Many players pair the Nimzo-Indian with the Benoni in their repertoire, in part to avoid the Taimanov Benoni. GM John Emms covers both openings in this section, throwing in the newest ideas in the Queen’s Indian and the Bogo-Indian to boot.
  • Daring Defenses (ECO A40, A50-52, A57-59, A80-99, B00, D08-09, D70-99 & E10): GM Glenn Flear treats some of the most dynamic defenses to 1.d4 in this section, including the Albin, the Benko, the Budapest, the Dutch and the Grunfeld.
  • Flank Openings (A00-39): Site owner GM Tony Kosten covers all of the Flank Openings. 1.c4 and the Reti are the main subjects of inquiry, but the King’s Indian Attack, the Bird and Larsen’s 1.b3 are also analyzed here.

Let’s take a closer look at one update and see what ChessPublishing.com has to offer. Chess Life readers can examine Richard Palliser’s February update of the d-Pawn Specials section at this link, courtesy of Tony Kosten.

Suppose, just for argument’s sake, that I play the Trompowsky. It is becoming popular again – there are two new books about it and a video series on chess24.com – and I want to keep tabs on its theory. How to proceed?

Mark Crowther releases game and news updates for The Week in Chess every Monday night. So perhaps I might download the new database each week, search for games in the Tromp, and try to discern what’s new or important. This is not a simple task for a class player, even for someone well equipped with books, databases and engines.

In Palliser’s February update I find four Trompowskys, although two transpose to other lines. The games are well-annotated, and new ideas are put in the context of existing theory. Some of the games are of real theoretical relevance, while others, like Popov-Mozharov (Parsvnath Open 2015), are just plain fun to study.

I know that some will see this as wish fulfillment – and they might not be wrong! – but I can’t help but see each section editor as my own virtual second, lending me their theoretical expertise each month. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. There are multiple IMs and GMs who subscribe, with former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov being the most well-known among them.

Palliser’s updates are among the best on the site, but there are others of note. John Watson, who used to handle the Flank Openings and 1.e4… sections, does a bang-up job with the French Defense. David Vigorito and Glenn Flear are excellent as well. I had worried about the 1.d4 d5 section when GM Ruslan Scherbakov was forced to take a leave of absence, but the young Australian Max Illingworth is proving himself up to the task.

Among the other benefits for subscribers, a few stand out. Opening summary files (“ChessPub Guides”) are updated each month and made available in .pgn format. Some sections also have ebooks in .pdf and ChessBase formats, although these are not updated as regularly. At the time of writing there are 940 ChessPub Guides available, along with over 22,000 annotated games in the complete ChessPublishing .pgn archives.

There are four levels of paid membership. Access to one section is $19.50/year. Any three are available for $39, while six cost $69. A subscription to all twelve sections is $99 for the year. If updates are late, as sometimes happens, I have seen subscriptions be extended so that members receive twelve full updates.

I find ChessPublishing.com to be an indispensible resource, and not just as a tournament player. Elizabeth Spiegel (formerly Vicary) noted its value for chess teaching in her 2007 CLO article on “E. Vicary’s Top 10 Teaching Books.” As she wrote, you can quickly find annotated examples of most any opening variation in its archives. It has saved the bacon of this chess coach more than once.

If you remain unconvinced or uninterested, let me suggest one more website to visit. ChessPub.com, owned and operated by ChessPublishing.com, is a free forum devoted primarily to analysis and discussion. While the site was originally conceived as a kind of advertisment for its subscription-only sibling, ChessPub.com has taken on a life of its own. There is a lot of high-quality material there, mostly about opening theory, but the Endgames section is also of particular interest. No less an authority than Mark Dvoretsky has cited some of its posts in his books!

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