Category Archives: chess software

Game Changer?

This review has been printed in the April 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-9056918187. PB 416pp.

Sigmund Freud once described the “three severe blows” suffered by human narcissism in the course of Western history.[1] The cosmological blow, struck by Copernicus, expelled us from our supposed place at the center of the universe. Darwin’s biological blow denied us the comfort of our separation from, and superiority over, the animal kingdom. And Freud himself landed the final, psychological blow, exposing the irrational unconscious forces beneath even the greatest achievements of human rationality.

To these three psychic wounds chess players can add a fourth: Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue in 1997. Deep Blue’s victory was portrayed in the mass media as a referendum on human intelligence, a ‘canary in the coalmine’ moment in which the inevitable overtaking of human creativity by machine intelligence was made manifest.

Curious thing, though. What was imagined as an antagonistic relationship between man and machine has instead proven to be a constructive one. Sure, humans have given up trying to beat Stockfish or Komodo, even at odds, but our ‘metal friends’ (Tukmakov’s delightful turn of phrase) are now our trusted analytical partners and teachers.

Far from killing our game, chess in the e-sport era now depends on the presence of engines, which play the role of the hole-cam in the poker boom. They give the illusion of prescience, allowing amateurs the heady feeling that they know more than the players themselves.

So imagine the shock when a scientific pre-print appeared on the Internet in December 2017. Its title, “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm,” was anodyne enough, but the paper announced a seismic shift in artificial intelligence and chess. AlphaZero, a program created by a Google subsidiary known as DeepMind, trounced Stockfish in head-to-head play. In doing so it forced us to rethink everything we know about computer chess.

The principles governing Stockfish’s play are not fundamentally different than those guiding Deep Blue, although they have been profoundly refined in the intervening years. Stockfish uses human-tuned criteria to evaluate each position in its search tree, and through “alpha-beta” search methods it is able to focus on promising continuations while pruning away inferior moves. Each move and each decision are the result of precise mathematical calculations, and human users can extract exact numerical evaluations for any given position.

AlphaZero is different, as Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan lucidly explain in their new book, Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI. Pre-programmed with only the basic rules of chess, and using general (non-specific) self-training algorithm, AlphaZero trained itself to play chess over the course of nine hours and 44 million self-play games. Periodically the program would refine its neural network, promoting tunable weights and network ‘layers’ that led to favorable outcomes, and demoting those that didn’t.

AlphaZero functions by combining these self-taught evaluative values with a Monte Carlo style tree search, where possible future game positions are spun out, evaluated, and ranked probabilistically. We don’t know exactly how AlphaZero decides what to play. The algorithm is a ‘black box’ in the Latourian sense, where inputs and outputs are known but (in contrast to Stockfish) its internal mechanisms remain opaque, even to DeepMind. What we do know is that AlphaZero is immensely, improbably strong, exhibiting an attractive attacking style reminiscent of Kasparov.

Perhaps this is what makes AlphaZero so remarkable – its style. What we see in its victories over Stockfish should, given all we know about computer chess, be impossible. Stockfish is typically seen as a calculative god and defensive wizard, able to soak up pressure, induce errors, and grind down its opponents. AlphaZero defeated it by playing the kinds of attacking, sacrificial ideas that, played by humans, would inevitably be refuted by the machine.

Sadler and Regan spend two chapters of Game Changer describing the technical aspects of AlphaZero’s self-training regiment, the way it “thinks,” and what its evaluations and expected scores mean. Their extensive access to the DeepMind team and the algorithm allow them to craft accessible explanations of difficult subjects, and the mini-interviews with DeepMind team members are helpful.

The meat of the book, however, focuses squarely on AlphaZero’s style. What makes it so good? How can we reverse-engineer the logic of its moves and apply that knowledge to our own games? By studying the roughly 230 publicly available AlphaZero games, along with approxmiately 2100 additional games provided by DeepMind, Sadler and Regan distill a number of tantalizing traits in AlphaZero’s play.

An example is useful. Consider this game, which Sadler describes as “perhaps AlphaZero’s most beautiful game of all.”[2]

NIMZO-ENGLISH (A17)
AlphaZero
Stockfish 8
AlphaZero v. Stockfish Match, 2017

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0–0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 a5 7.b4 d6 8.e3 Ne4 9.Qc2 Ng5 10.b5 Nxf3+ 11.gxf3 Qf6 12.d4!?

Sadler and Regan expected 12.Bb2 Qxf3 13.Rg1 but AlphaZero instead plays for long-term compensation.

12. … Qxf3 13.Rg1 Nd7 14.Be2 Qf6 15.Bb2 Qh4 16.Rg4!?

Giving up the h-pawn to open the file. Stockfish sees this position as better for Black, while AlphaZero thought that White had a slight advantage.

16. … Qxh2 17.Rg3 f5 18.0–0–0

Offering pawn number three!

18. … Rf7

After 18. … Qxf2 19.Rdg1 Rf7 20.R1g2 Qe1+ 21.Bd1 White’s compensation is undeniable.

19.Bf3 Qh4 20.Rh1 Qf6

image

What does AlphaZero have for the two pawns? Two half-open files and massively superior mobility. This is a key idea for Sadler and Regan. As they explained in a conference call for chess journalists – the first such promotional call I’ve been on for a chess book! – the concept of mobility is fundamental for understanding how AlphaZero plays. It works to maximize the mobility of its pieces and minimize the mobility of its opponent’s. One of AlphaZero’s most striking tendencies, the pushing of its rook pawns to restrict the opponent’s king, is emblematic in this regard. Here, having opened lines for its rooks, AlphaZero now proceeds to open diagonals and further increase its mobility.

21.Kb1 g6 22.Rgg1!? a4 23.Ka1 Rg7 24.e4 f4 25.c5 Qe7 26.Rc1 Nf6 27.e5 dxe5 28.Rhe1 e4 29.Bxe4 Qf8

This is a key position in both the game and the book. Sadler and Regan use it to illustrate AlphaZero’s “thought processes” in Chapter 4.

30.d5!

AlphaZero sacrifices another pawn to open the a1–h8 diagonal!

30. … exd5 31.Bd3! Bg4 32.f3 Bd7

White’s initative grows after 32. … Bxf3? 33.Rf1 Be4 34.Rxf4.

33.Qc3 Nh5 34.Re5

AlphaZero rates its winning chances at 80.3% here. (It evaluates positions by win percentage in Monte Carlo game rollouts.) Stockfish 8 thinks White is significantly better, but newer versions of the engine more clearly understand the danger.

34. … c6 35.Rce1 Nf6 36.Qd4 cxb5 37.Bb1 Bc6 38.Re6 Rf7

Stockfish hopes to return some of its material advantage and weather the storm. AlphaZero does not oblige.

39.Rg1 Qg7 40.Qxf4 Re8 41.Rd6 Nd7 42.Qc1 Rf6 43.f4! Qe7 44.Rxf6 Nxf6 45.f5 Qe3 46.fxg6 Qxc1 47.gxh7+ Kf7 48.Rxc1 Nxh7 49.Bxh7 Re3 50.Rd1 Ke8 51.Ka2 Bd7 52.Bd4 Rh3 53.Bc2 Be6 54.Re1 Kd7 55.Kb2 Rf3 56.Re5 Rg3 57.Re3 Rg2 58.Kc3 Rg4 59.Rf3 Ke8 60.Rf2 Rg3+ 61.Kb4 Rg4 62.Rd2 Bd7 63.Ka5 Rf4 64.Be5 Rf3 65.Rd3 Rf2 66.Bd1 Bc6 67.Kb6 1–0

One can’t help but feel as if a superior, alien intelligence has taken the White pieces and opened a new vista on to our beloved game.

Part III of Game Changer brilliantly distills some of the key features of AlphaZero’s attacking prowess. We see, through detailed analysis and clear explanation, how AlphaZero values outposts, why it rams ‘Harry the h-pawn’ forward, how it plays on color complexes and sacrifices for what Kasparov called quality. Part IV, devoted to AlphaZero’s opening choices, is less successful. The authors laud AlphaZero’s novel handling of the White side of the Carlsbad structure, for instance, but the game they cite departs from theory on the sixth move, rendering much of the fine preparatory explanation useless.

Game Changer is an excellent book, fully deserving of the critical praise it has received. Sadler and Regan patiently explain the technical minutia for a non-technical audience, and their attempts to divine the essence of AlphaZero’s style are clear and convincing. Until DeepMind succeeds in “recovering back” AlphaZero’s implicit heuristics through some secondary algorithm, this treatment is as good it gets.

What remains less settled, at least in my mind, is the issue of the book’s title. Is AlphaZero really a game changer? Does its advent herald a revolution in chess?

DeepMind’s novel computational solution – AlphaZero’s self-learned strength and style – is as disruptive today as Deep Blue’s brute force approach was in 1997. Both reconfigured our understanding the possibilities of computer chess and, truth be told, of chess itself.

This, unfortunately, does not exhaust the two project’s similarities. AlphaZero seems doomed to a life behind corporate bars much like its august predecessor, hidden away from the public in the interest of protecting trade secrets. And as with Deep Blue, AlphaZero’s influence on chess will be as a consequence be limited.

I suspect that the real game changer will be Leela Chess, an open-source project that mimics AlphaZero’s self-learning algorithm. Because it is open-source, like the now ubiquitous Stockfish, Leela can be used by anyone without cost. Players can train with Leela, use it to analyze their games, and test their ideas against it. The democratization of chess information that began with Robert Hyatt’s Crafty, Mark Crowther’s The Week in Chess, and Stockfish continues with Leela, and the chess world will be much the richer for it.


[1] See Freud’s Compete Psychological Works (Standard edition, ed. Strachey), volume 17, p.139-141.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RuIHfNcPO0

Eat your Oatmeal!

This column has been printed in the February 2018 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training: Volume 2, Endgames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510150. PB

Grivas, Efstratios. TP Endgame Academy: Bishop Endings, an Innovative Course. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510174. PB.

Lakdawala, Cyrus. First Steps: Fundamental Endings. London: Everyman Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1781944516. PB 272pp.

Lund, Esben. Sharp Endgames. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1784830397. PB 312pp.

Mikhalchishin, Adrian, and Oleg Stetsko. Mastering Complex Endgames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510112. PB 414pp.

What does it mean to know something?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all epistemological on you, hard as it may be for this former philosophy teacher to restrain himself. There’s no exam at the end of your reading, and I’ll try to keep the ten dollar words to a minimum.

Still, in writing this month’s column, I kept circling back to the question. We say we ‘know’ lots of things, but what does it mean to really know them? How can we verify that our beliefs are true and justified?

The occasion for these musings was my most recent tournament outing, one of my worst in recent years. I should have recognized the ominous clouds on the horizon after my first game, where I self-immolated in spectacular fashion.

[A replayable version of this analysis will be linked after the Chessbase website returns to functionality.]

image

After pressing a bit too hard with Black, I found myself in this position, a pawn down but with good drawing chances. The placement of White’s rook in front of his a-pawn seemed a particularly auspicious omen. Having studied similar rook endgames in the recent past, I decided to “allow” White’s trick with 44. …Bd4!? as I guessed that my opponent would not know the winning technique. This gamble was justified after

45.Ne6+ Kf6 46.Nxd4 Rxd4 47.g4 Rb4 48.a5 Ra4 49.Kg3 Ke6 50.a6 h5 51.h3 Kf6 52.Ra8 hxg4 53.hxg4 Kg5 54.f3 Kf6 55.a7

when the position is dead equal. The White rook is trapped on a8 and if the Black king stays on g7 or h7, White cannot make progress. The White king cannot assist with promotion as the Black rook will never run out of checks. Play continued

55. …Kg7 56.g5 Ra5 57.f4 Ra3+ 58.Kg4 Ra4 59.Kf3 Ra3+ 60.Ke4 Ra4+ 61.Kd5

And here, with plenty of time on the clock, I inexplicably lost my head.

image

61. …f6??

61. …Ra1 62.Kc5 Rc1+ 63.Kb4 Rb1+ 64.Ka3 Ra1+ 65.Kb2 Ra6 and White has nothing more than a draw.

62.gxf6+ Kxf6 63.Rf8+ 1–0

Did I “know” how to draw the game? It would appear not. But I had studied that exact ending – single rook, four pawns vs three, extra a-pawn – and, despite its being theoretically unclear, gotten a drawn position on the board. It was my practical knowledge, for lack of a better word, that was deficient.

If only there was something that could help me improve my concrete endgame play.

NARRATOR: There is.

Endgame books have traditionally come in three main types. There are (a) theoretical encyclopedias (Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, for example) (b) manuals dealing with specific material configurations (Secrets of Pawn Endings by Müller & Lamprecht), and (c) books that aim to teach technique instead of theory (Endgame Strategy by Shereshevsky).

To these we can add a fourth: the “workbook.” The widespread influence of Mark Dvoretsky’s training techniques have created something of a niche market for collections of difficult positions. Their purpose is to provide useful fodder for solving or ‘two-handed’ play, giving players a chance to put their theoretical knowledge into practice without risking rating points. Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation: Endgame Play is a fine example of the genre.

An avalanche of new endgame books have appeared in recent months, and we’ll take a look at five of them here. We begin with yet another book by one of America’s most prolific authors, and – stop the presses? – I kind of like it.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been fairly tough on Cyrus Lakdawala, taking him to task for what I see as excessive and often useless verbosity. He has curbed some of these tendencies in his latest effort, First Steps: Fundamental Endings, and the result is a much tighter and satisfying read.

Lakdawala’s book is part of the new “First Steps” series from Everyman, which (per the back cover) emphasizes “the basic principles, the basic strategies, [and] the key tricks and traps.” His explanatory skill shines in this book, but while the basics are well-treated in Fundamental Endings, I’m less convinced that he covers all the fundamental positions. The section on rook endings is typical of this difficulty, where some standard situations are underbaked or left untreated.

Capablanca-Yates (Hastings, 1930) is a famous example where White manages to win with rook and three pawns versus rook and two pawns, all on the kingside. Lakdawala’s analysis is adequate, but improvements found in Averbakh – whom he cites – are missing.

There is, moreover, no coverage of rook and four pawns against rook and three pawns on the kingside, an ending Mickey Adams had to defend twice at the 2017 London Chess Classic, nor the ending I botched at the beginning of this article: rook and four pawns against rook and three where one side has a passed pawn on the queenside. Both are extremely common, and both should qualify as “fundamental.”

While it would have been strengthened by a more judicious choice of examples, First Steps: Fundamental Endings remains a very friendly introduction to the whole of endgame theory. With Bishop Endings: An Innovative Course, Efstratios Grivas takes a different tact, dedicating an entire book to the theory and practice of same-colored bishop endings.

More precisely, Bishop Endings also covers endings with bishops against pawns, and bishops and pawns against pawns, but in terms of bishop and pawn(s) against bishop and pawn(s), only same-colored bishop positions are treated. This fact is nowhere to be found in the book or promotional materials. I discovered it by playing through the examples and wondering where the opposite colored bishops were!

By narrowing his field of study, Grivas is able to bring great analytical focus to bear on these endings, and readers will certainly learn a lot about them. Those interested in endings with bishops of opposite colors, however, will just have to wait for a second book in the series.

In contrast to the two titles just discussed, Mastering Complex Endgames by Adrian Mikhalchishin and Oleg Stetsko is a broad study of endgame technique. By “complex endgames,” the authors seem to mean those kind of positions that can straddle the line between late middlegames and multi-piece endgames. The book, whose closest read-alike is How to Play Chess Endgames by Müller and Pajeken, consists of eleven chapters that cover broad piece configurations (“Opposite Colored Bishops,” “Rook against Two Minor Pieces”) and typical endgame situations (“Structural Concessions,” “The Technique of Defending”).

Mastering Complex Endgames was first published in Russian in 2012, and I suspect that this edition is a direct translation of that text. Very few post-2012 examples are included, and some of the older analysis seems not to have been engine checked. Indeed, as a rule I found that the older the position, the more likely I was to encounter analytical problems, with well-trodden classics being something of an exception.

I have to admit that I was surprised by this finding. Mikhalchishin is a very well-known trainer and author with an excellent reputation. Perhaps part of the problem comes from his public distain for computer and tablebase analysis, both of which are essential in this day and age for analytical accuracy. As it stands Mastering Complex Endgames is a rich source for study material, but a healthy skepticism is warranted with some of the older positions.

Silas Esben Lund’s Sharp Endgames is a very high-level example of the modern endgame “workbook” described above. About half of Sharp Endgames is wrapped up in its third chapter, “Introduction to Endgames.” This material – covering theoretical knight (3.1), rook (3.2), bishop versus knight (3.3), rook against minor piece (3.4), and queen endings (3.5) – is of the highest quality, and it prepares readers for the real work of Lund’s book.

Each of the 64 exercises in Sharp Endgames – readers are also encouraged to ‘solve’ the 33 examples in chapter three – are designed to be played out against another person or against the computer. Each exercise is coded with a suggested level and time control, and borrowing from the literature surrounding “deliberative practice,” Lund embeds a novel account of 16 subjective features of “critical moments” in his exercise solutions.

Having written on the role of the computer in chess training myself – see US Chess Online for those articles – I cannot speak highly enough of Lund’s work here. Sharp Endgames is the first major title I have seen that outlines a thoughtful strategy for training against an engine, and Lund makes a persuasive case for the practical importance of such activity.

The book is not perfect, of course. The 16 parameters can feel unwieldy and intimidating, and Lund wrongly attributes the theory of “deliberative practice” to Geoff Colvin. (It was Anders Ericsson who popularized it.) I also think it makes little sense to train against a modern engine at full strength when other, ‘lesser’ programs are available. But none of this should detract from what is a deeply original effort, and every player over 2000 should strongly consider the ideas in Sharp Endgames for their own training.

Our final book this month, one perhaps better suited to the techno-phobic, is another endgame workbook: Chess Calculation Training Volume 2: Endgames, by Romain Edouard. This is actually Edouard’s third collection of problems, the above title notwithstanding, and the second in his current series.

Volume 2: Endgames contains 424 problems across ten sections that are divided by task (“Find the Technical Win!,” “Find the Missed Move!”) and not by material. The positions run the full range of endgames, from multi-piece through tablebase territory, and the solutions are thorough and often mini-lessons in themselves. Many of the examples could be used in training sessions against the computer, although it is certainly not required, and class players will find Edouard’s problems perhaps more palatable than Lund’s.

One of my old teachers once described reading the great American philosopher John Dewey as being akin to eating a bowl of oatmeal. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but it’s nourishing and will hold you in good stead for the rest of the day. Endgame study is, to my mind, much the same. While I am especially convinced that practical sparring a la Lund is of particular benefit, the best endgame books are those that you actually read. I hope that some of those listed above will be of assistance in your search for endgame knowledge… except, of course, in your games against me.

Diving into Databases

BigBase / MegaBase 2016

Correspondence Database 2015.

The Week in Chess (TWIC)

Paramount Chess Database.

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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.

You little stinkers…

This review has been printed in the July 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.

—–

Roycroft, John. Stinking Bishops. self-published. ISBN 978-1-869874-20-9. PB, 84 + xiv pp. Available from USCF Sales ($19.95) and Chess4Less ($10.00).

No one writes chess books to get rich. Sales figures for even the most famous of chess writers pale in comparison to the Franzens and Grishams of the publishing world. Still, most authors expect to make at least a little money on their books. Chess publishing remains a for-profit enterprise, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Cash, as the Wu-Tang Clan said, rules everything around me, and this is why there are always new opening and improvement books being published. They might sell!

Imagine my delight, then, when I read John Roycroft’s Stinking Bishops, an eminently uncommercial work if ever there were one! Stinking Bishops – named after a fetid English cheese that, when cut, resembles a Bishop’s mitre – is an 84 page self-published book devoted to just two endgame positions. Both are presented here, and White is to move in both cases.

image
‘Unlike bishops’

image
‘Like bishops’

[Notice anything strange about the second diagram? The double check appears to be impossible, right? Not if (Black was to move) there was a black pawn on e2 that captured a White piece on d1 and promoted to a rook! Odd indeed… but not impossible.]

What’s so interesting about these two positions that they merit such attention? Each one represents the maximum length win for rook, bishop and pawn vs. rook and bishop according to 7-man tablebases (exhaustive databases of endgame positions). It’s White to move and win in 184 moves in the ‘like bishops’ diagram, and a ‘mere’ 159 moves to victory in the ‘unlike bishops’ position.

I know what you’re thinking: “watching paint dry would be more fun than reading this book.” Were this book written by just anyone, you might be right. But John Roycroft is not just anyone, and this is not just any book. Roycroft is the former editor of EG, the world’s definitive endgame and study magazine, and an International Judge of Chess Compositions. He is also familiar with the world of computing, having worked for IBM for many years.

It is easy to dismiss the importance of the ‘oracle’ – Roycroft’s honorific for the tablebase – from a practical perspective. What good is winning in 159 (or 184) moves when over-the-board endgames can be drawn in 50? (USCF Rule 14F, ‘The Fifty-Move Rule’) What’s the point of studying such endgames when no human can possibly remember the exact sequence of moves needed to win?

Roycroft pulls off a very neat trick in Stinking Bishops. He takes the arcane moves given by the tablebase and goes some distance in discerning the hidden logic beneath them. Each position is first presented with a raw list of moves that lead to the forced win, and then Roycroft investigates dozens of the key moves and positions. His notes are witty and wordy, often addressed to an imagined interlocutor, and they effectively assist the reader in grasping the necessity of certain moves as White marches to victory.

In his foreword to the book, Chess Life’s own Daniel Naroditsky congratulates Roycroft for his ability to explain the esoteric moves of the computer in very human ways, saying that he “was unable to put the book down” until he’d finished it! Not all of us are endgame columnists, of course, but Stinking Bishops really is a delightful romp through two (sometimes mind-numbingly complex) endings.

I can’t imagine that this book will sell well, given its topic and that there is no publisher to promote it. Still, I don’t think Roycroft will mind. This was a book written for love of the game, and it will – perhaps with the help of this review – find its way into the hands of those who will appreciate its many, many charms.

And Then There Were Two

Komodo 9, written by Don Dailey, Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler. Available (1) with Fritz GUI from Amazon ($80ish as of 5/28), (2) for download with Fritz GUI from ChessBase.com ($73.50 w/o VAT as of 5/28) and (3) directly from the Komodo website without GUI for $59.98; also available as part of a 1 year subscription package for $99.97.

Stockfish 6, written by the Stockfish Collective. Open-source and available at the Stockfish website.

—–

Now that Houdini seems to have gone gentle into that good night, there are two engines vying for the title of strongest chess engine in the world. Those two engines – Stockfish and Komodo – have each seen new releases in recent months. Stockfish 6 was released at the end of January, while Komodo 9 became available at the end of April from komodochess.com and the end of May from ChessBase.

Last year I wrote a review of Komodo 8 and Stockfish 5 that was republished at ChessBase.com, and much of what I wrote there applies here as well. Fear not, frazzled reader: you don’t need to go back and read that review, as most of the key points will be reiterated here.

First things first: any top engine (Komodo, Stockfish, Houdini, Rybka, Fritz, Hiarcs, Junior, Chiron, Critter, Equinox, Gull, Fire, Crafty, among many others) is plenty strong to beat any human player alive. This is not because each of these engines are equally strong. While they don’t always play the absolute best moves, none of the aforementioned engines ever make big mistakes. Against fallible humans, that’s a recipe for domination. It’s nearly useless – not to mention soul-crushing! – to play full games against the top engines, although I do recommend using weaker engines (Clueless 1.4, Monarch, Piranha) as sparring partners for playing out positions or endgames.

Even if all the major engines can beat us, they’re not all created equal. Three major testing outfits – CCRL, CEGT, and IPON – engage in ongoing and extensive testing of all the best engines, and they do so by having the engines play thousands of games against one another at various time controls. In my previous review I noted that Komodo, Stockfish and Houdini were the top three engines on the lists, and in that order. This remains the case after the release of Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6:

CCRL (TC 40 moves/40 min, 4-cpu computers):
1. Komodo 9, 3325 (Komodo 8 was rated 3301)
2. Stockfish 6, 3310 (Stockfish 5 was rated 3285)
3. Houdini 4, 3269

CEGT
40/4: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4
G/5’+3”: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4
40/20: 1. Komodo 9, 2. Stockfish 6, 3. Houdini 4 (NB: list includes multiple versions of each engine)
40/120: 1. Stockfish 6, 2. Komodo 8 (does not yet include version 9), 3. Houdini 4 (NB””: list includes multiple versions of each engine)

IPON
1. Komodo 9, 3190 (Komodo 8 was 3142)
2. Stockfish 6, 3174 (Stockfish 4 was 3142)
3. Houdini 4, 3118

The results are fairly clear. Komodo 9 is ever so slightly stronger than Stockfish 6 when it comes to engine-engine play, and this advantage seems to grow when longer time controls are used.

For my purposes, though, what’s important is an engine’s analytical strength. This strength is indicated by engine-engine matches, in part, but it is also assessed through test suites and – perhaps most importantly – by experience. Some engines might be more trustworthy in specific types of positions than others or exhibit other misunderstandings. Erik Kislik, for instance, reports in his April 2015 Chess Life article on the TCEC Finals – some of which appeared in his earlier Chessdom piece on TCEC Season 6 – that only Komodo properly understood the imbalance of three minor pieces against a queen. There are undoubtedly other quirks known to strong players who use engines on a daily basis.

In my previous review I ran Komodo, Stockfish and Houdini (among others) through two test suites on my old Q8300. Since then I’ve upgraded my hardware, and now I’m using an i7-4790 with 12gb of RAM and an SSD for the important five and six-man Syzygy tablebases included with ChessBase’s Endgame Turbo 4. (Note: if you have an old-fashioned hard drive, only use the five-man tbs in your search; if you use the six-man, it will slow the engine analysis down dramatically.) Because I have faster hardware I thought that a more difficult test suite would be in order, and – lucky me! – just such a suite was recently made available in the TalkChess forums. I gave Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 one minute per problem to solve the 112 problems in the suite, and the results were as follows:

Komodo 9 solved 37 out 110 problems (33.6%) with an average time/depth of 20.04 seconds and 24.24 ply. Stockfish 6 solved 30/110 (27.2%) with an average time/depth of 20.90 seconds and 29.70 ply. (Note that while there are 112 problems in the suite, two of them were rejected by both engines because they had incomplete data.) The entire test suite along with embedded results can be found at:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2015/6/6/Game1753083657.html

I have also been using both Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 in my analytical work and study. So that you might also get a feeling for how each evaluates typical positions, I recorded a video of the two at work.  Each engine ran simultaneously (2 cpus, 2gb of RAM) as I looked at a few games of interest, most of which came from Alexander Baburin’s outstanding e-magazine Chess Today. The video is 14 minutes long. You can replay the games at this link:

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2015/6/6/Game1752975735.html

Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 in comparative analysis

Even a brief glance at the above video will make clear just how good top engines are becoming in their ability to correctly assess positions, but it also shows (in Gusev-Averbakh) that they are far from perfect. They rarely agree fully in positions that are not clear wins or draws, and this is due to the differences in evaluation and search between the two. Broadly speaking, we can say that evaluation is the criteria or heuristics used by each engine to ‘understand’ a position, while search is the way that the engine ‘prunes’ the tree of analysis. While many engines might carry similar traits in their evaluation or search, none are identical, and this produces the differences in play and analysis between them.

Stockfish 6 is a rather deep searcher. It achieves these depths through aggressive pruning of the tree of analysis. While there are real advantages to this strategy, not the least of which is quick analytical sight and tactical ingenuity, there are some drawbacks. Stockfish can miss some resources hidden very deep in the position. I find it to be a particularly strong endgame analyst, in part because it now reads Syzygy tablebases and refers to them in its search. Stockfish is an open-source program, meaning that it is free to download and that anyone can contribute a patch, but all changes to evaluation or search are tested on a distributed network of computers (“Fishtest”) to determine their value.

Komodo 9 is slightly more aggressive in its pruning than is Komodo 8, and it is slightly faster in its search as well. (Both changes seem to have been made, to some degree, with the goal of more closely matching Stockfish’s speed – an interesting commercial decision.) While Komodo’s evaluation is, in part, automatically tuned through automated testing, it is also hand-tuned (to what degree I cannot say) by GM Larry Kaufman.

The result is an engine that feels – I know this sounds funny, but it’s true – smart. It seems slightly more attuned to positional nuances than its competitors, and as all the top engines are tactical monsters, even a slight positional superiority can be important.  I have noticed that Komodo is particularly good at evaluating positions where material imbalances exist, although I cannot say exactly why this is the case!

As more users possess multi-core systems, the question of scaling – how well an engine is able to make use of those multiple cores – becomes increasingly important. Because it requires some CPU cycles to hand out different tasks to the processors in use, and because some analysis will inevitably be duplicated on multiple CPUs, there is not a linear relation between number of CPUs and analytical speed.

Komodo 8 was reputedly much better than Stockfish 5 in its implementation of parallel search, but recent tests published on the Talkchess forum suggest that the gap is narrowing. While Stockfish 6 sees an effective speedup of 3.6x as it goes from 1 to 8 cores, Komodo 9’s speedup is about 4.5x. And the gap is further narrowed if we consider the developmental versions of Stockfish, where the speedup is now around 4x.

Hardcore engine enthusiasts have, as the above suggests, become accustomed to downloading developmental versions of Stockfish. In an effort to serve some of the same market share, the authors of Komodo have created a subscription service that provides developmental versions of Komodo to users. This subscription, which costs $99.97, entitles users to all official versions of Komodo released in the following year along with developmental versions on a schedule to be determined. Only those who order Komodo directly from the authors are currently able to choose this subscription option.

The inevitable question remains: which engine should you choose? My answer is the same now as it was in my previous review. You should choose both – and perhaps more.

Both Komodo and Stockfish are insanely strong engines. There remain some positions, however, where one engine will get ‘stuck’ or otherwise prove unable to discern realistic (i.e. human) looking moves for both sides. In that case it is useful to query another engine to get a second (or perhaps even third) opinion. I find myself using Komodo 9 more than Stockfish 6 in my day-to-day work, but your mileage may well vary. Serious analysts, no matter their preference, will want to have both Komodo 9 and Stockfish 6 as part of their ‘teams.’

Lucky Number 13?

ChessBase 13.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you are an ambitious chess player, no matter your age or rating, you should be using ChessBase.

ChessBase, created by the company of the same name, is a chess database manager and GUI used by nearly all the best players in the world. It allows users to access millions of games played across history and the globe, to make use of chess engines while studying those games, and to curate one’s own data with great ease. Opening books and endgame tablebases are available to assist with analysis, and links to the Playchess server and the Engine Cloud are built into the interface.

After ChessBase 10 was released in 2008, I was under the impression that most all necessary features were baked into the product, leaving little room for improvement and little need to upgrade. ChessBase 11, released in 2010, did little to change my mind. The shift to a GUI based on the Office ribbon wasn’t a game changer for me, and while I thought access to online game databases from within the GUI was nice, I didn’t see it as worth the money required to upgrade.

This changed with ChessBase 12. Released in 2012 – note the two year dev cycle? – ChessBase 12 introduced a slew of neat bells and whistles that made me take notice. The ‘deep analysis’ function, perhaps meant to rival Aquarium’s IDea feature, was handy (if still a work in progress). The ability to search for similar endgames and pawn structures was very useful, as was the expanded access to the online database. Direct publishing of games to the viewchess website was a real time saver. But what really impressed me about ChessBase 12 was the initial movement towards the cloud.

“Let’s Check,” which first appeared (if memory serves) in the Fritz 13 GUI, is something like a gigantic, decentralized database of analyzed positions. If you are connected to the “Let’s Check” server while you work, ChessBase 12 uploads your engine evaluations of positions studied to the cloud, and it gives you access to the evaluations of others. This can be very useful if, say, you are looking at games from important tournaments. In some cases you are able to ask the server to ‘annotate’ games played that same day, leaving you with suggestions and evaluations from users around the globe.

Even more interesting was the launch of the “Engine Cloud.” In simple terms, the “Engine Cloud” allows for remote access of analytical engines anywhere in the world. Those with powerful hardware can, in essence, rent time on their computers to other people, granting them access to their analytical engines for a small fee. (You can also configure your own hardware to be privately available to only you.) Those of us without ‘big iron’ at home can, for very reasonable prices, have blazing fast engines at our beck and call; you might even, if you investigate usernames, get to use a former World Champion’s hardware in the process. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

Now – two years later – ChessBase has released version 13 of their flagship program. It is true, as we were promised in Jon Edwards’ eminently useful guide to ChessBase 12, that most of the features in 12 reappear in 13. What you know from 12 is still true for 13, so there is no real learning curve to be navigated.

So what is new in ChessBase 13?

C13Splash

“The ChessBase Cloud”

ChessBase has gotten into the cloud data storage business with ChessBase 13. You can now save data to the ChessBase Cloud, where it will (eventually) be available to credentialed users in the ChessBase GUI, in mobile apps, and in a web interface.

Let’s dive a bit more deeply into this, and what it might mean for users. Right now I keep some of my data in a Dropbox folder. This includes my opening analysis, which gets updated fairly often, a database of my games (OTB, ICC, etc.), a folder of data related to endings and a folder of games from local events. When I write a new game to my games database, it is immediately mirrored to the cloud, and that change is written to my other computers the next time they boot up.

The ChessBase Cloud duplicates this functionality, so that databases in the Cloud are mirrored to other computers linked to the same login, but it might also create some additional possibilities. Databases can be shared between users. You can make a database public on the web, or you can specify that only certain users can access the data. This might make joint preparation or joint analysis a real possibility – ‘the Hammer’ (Jon Ludwig Hammer) could update opening analysis overnight and save it to the cloud, where ‘the Dane’ (Peter Heine Nielsen) and ‘the Champ’ (Magnus Carlsen) would find it in the morning.

Screenshot 2014-11-21 19.31.47

(The game in the screenshot is from an article retweeted by Peter Svidler. Carlsen may well have had a win in Game 7 of the World Championship! There’s a pgn at the end of the article, so check it out!)

There is also something in the documentation about data being eventually accessible via a web GUI. I could make a file available to a friend who is travelling or who does not have a Windows computer, and they could study it in their browsers or on an app. It’s not fully implemented yet, but if and when it is, this could be a very useful addition to the ChessBase ecosystem.

“Analysis jobs”

With the new “analysis jobs” feature, you can now specify a list of positions to be subjected to automated analysis without your intervention. This is not the same thing as the automatic game analysis in the Fritz GUI; instead, this seems to be an iterative improvement on the ‘deep analysis’ feature introduced in CB12. The positions can be analyzed two ways: either you get n-lines of branchless variations, or you can use the ‘deep analysis’ feature. In both cases you can specify the engines to be used, the time allotted per position or per batch of positions, and how you want the results of the analysis to be recorded.

Let’s say that you’ve been studying the Grunfeld, and you want to check a few positions that came up in Peter Svidler’s masterful video series over at chess24.com. You can put those positions into ChessBase, add them to the list of positions to be analyzed, and then walk away while your engines do their magic. I can see how this might be useful for me at my level, and I can only imagine how it could be useful for a professional with dozens of positions to check before a big event.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 21.18.51

It should be noted that, as of RC #5 (or version 1 of the official release), I could not coax this feature into full operation. While both the ‘variations’ and ‘deep analysis’ settings lead to analysis on the screen, only the ‘variations’ option correctly writes to the .cbone file that would hold the finished analytical product. I am told, through e-mails with ChessBase, that this should be fixed in the immediate future.

Update 11/24: The above bug was fixed in Service Pack #2, out today.

Repertoire Function

The repertoire function is said to be improved in ChessBase 13, so that now White and Black repertoires are distinguished from one another. I have never used the repertoire functions before, not having really seen the need, so I can’t comment on how much of a difference this makes from previous versions. For the sake of this piece, however, I thought I’d give it a try.

I created, using around 1400 of my games from the Internet Chess Club, my own opening repertoire files by clicking on ‘Report’ -> ‘Generate Repertoire’ in the database window and following the prompts. This presented me with two repertoire databases, one for my games with White and one for my games with Black. ChessBase put all of my games with each color into the appropriate game files, giving each game an easily recognizable English-language name and saving the databases to the Cloud.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.14.17

I’d always wondered where one would proceed from here. Certainly it’s interesting to see my games rendered in an orderly fashion, to see what I’ve played at key junctures in my openings, etc., but I never understood what could be done with these repertoire databases after that. One thing you can do is to scan new databases – issues of The Week in Chess, Informants, or CBMs – to see what new games appear in lines that you play. I tested this with ChessBase Magazine 162 and my black repertoire.

ChessBase produced a report listing all the relevant games from CBM 162 for my repertoire.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.10.24

I could, for example, add the game Kelires-Lee (Tromso ol, 2014) to my repertoire database, or I could mark a specific move as a key position in my repertoire.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.21.58

Having used ChessBase for many years, and having built up some fairly heavy analytical files in that time, I doubt that I’ll switch management of my repertoire over to the Repertoire Function. Still, I can see why some might, and it’s interesting to see my openings ‘dissected,’ their innards on full ChessBase display!

Aesthetics and Ergonomics

The look of ChessBase 13 is basically that of ChessBase 12, but there are a few tweaks of note. ChessBase can now offer ‘extended information’ in the game window, which means that pictures, flags and rating information for players appears next to names in the game window. There is also a small toolbar at the bottom of the game window containing a palette of Informant symbols.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 17.28.48

This might make it easier to annotate games, although I’ve always just right-clicked and chosen the required symbol from the menu items. It is also easier to create variations in a game, as the variation dialog appears less often during input.

Odds and Ends

ChessBase 13 allows you to run multiple instances of the program as well as multiple instances of engines within it. This might be useful for the ‘analysis job’ function described above, or if you want to run multiple maintenance tasks at once. There are some new classification tabs available, including one that classifies games by final material count. A few recent additions to ChessBase 12 have also migrated to 13, including support for Syzygy tablebases and for creating and saving illegal positions to a database. This last feature is very useful for teaching, especially if one uses the Stappenmethode series of books. Finally (and anecdotally) startup of ChessBase 13 seems much snappier than 12.

Stability and quirks

I have been using beta versions (#2-#5) of ChessBase 13 for perhaps two weeks now, and for most purposes, it has been stable and without problems. Some oddities remain: for example, you can’t use the keyboard shortcut ‘T’ to take back the last move in a game and enter a variation beginning with that same move, and menu items remain grayed out even when they should be available. [Update 11/24: This second quirk was fixed as of Service Pack #2. All menu items are back to normal.] Players used to typing ‘T’ for ‘takeback’ should instead press the Ctrl key while entering a move to create a variation.

Database management – finding / killing doubles, checking / fixing integrity, etc. – is an under-appreciated feature in the ChessBase programs. My original thought for this review was to really put these functions to the test by creating a true Frankenstein of a database, filled with doubles / errors, for testing. I cobbled together a database of nearly 21 million games from dodgy sources and set ChessBase 13 to finding doubles. This was a bad idea. I killed the effort when, after an hour plus, the program had made it through approximately 19% of the database with a nearly one in three rate of double detection. It would have taken another four or five hours to finish the job!

Screenshot 2014-11-19 14.40.09

Instead, on the advice of a fellow ChessPub-ian, I asked around amongst some friends and was given access to an Opening Master database (Golem 01.13) containing approximately 8.7 million games. I compared how long it took ChessBase 12 and 13 to find and kill the doubles in that database. CB13 was faster, taking 2 minutes and 21 seconds to complete the job, while CB12 took 3 minutes and 55 seconds. 13 also used about three times the RAM to do the job, which may account for its increased speed. Both detected an identical number of doubles in the database (48,784).

Upon finishing the task, the Clipboard opens in both 12 and 13. Here, ChessBase 13 froze. This also happened when I stopped the program in the midst of killing Frankenstein’s doubles. In the case of the Frankenstein database, I chalked it up to the enormity of the project, but if the same problem was replicated with the smaller database, there might have been a bug involved. This problem was fixed as of Release Candidate #5.

I would have also tested the ‘pack database’ and ‘integrity check’ functions of both ChessBase 12 and 13, but (1) the integrity check is the same in both cases (version 6.04 dated 9.25.13) and (2) the OM Golem database had critical errors that could not be repaired, even with the slow integrity check option.

Summary

ChessBase 13 represents an iterative improvement over ChessBase 12, but not a paradigm-shifting one. It will become so when the ChessBase Cloud features are fully functional, but for now, I’m not convinced that it’s a mandatory upgrade for ChessBase 12 users. (It’d be nice, though!) Serious analysts, professionals and correspondence players might be the exception here, as the automated position analysis could prove very valuable.

Those still using ChessBase 10 / 11 (or, worse, not using ChessBase at all!) should absolutely consider getting a copy of ChessBase 13. The old advertising for ChessBase 3 still holds true: ChessBase is something of a time multiplier, allowing you to do more chess work in much less time. This is truer today than it was then. We have massive, immaculate databases like Big 2015 or Mega 2015 to search for ideas, and we have inordinately strong engines like Houdini, Komodo and Stockfish to assist us. There is a reason that the strongest players in the world use ChessBase: it is indispensable for the modern chess player!

ChessBase 13 comes in four ‘flavors.’

  • Download: the download version is available directly from the ChessBase shop. You only get the program itself; no data is included except for the Player Encyclopedia, and you do not get any extension of membership on Playchess.com.
  • Starter: Includes ChessBase 13, the Big Database 2015 (unannotated) with weekly updates, and three issues of the ChessBase Magazine. No Playchess membership is included.
  • Mega: Includes ChessBase 13, the Mega Database 2015 (68k annotated games) with weekly updates, and six issues of the ChessBase Magazine. No Playchess membership is included.
  • Premium: The Mega package plus the Correspondence Database 2013, the 4 DVD set of Syzygy tablebases (Endgame Turbo 4), and a one-year Premium subscription to Playchess.com.

The Starter package runs €179.90 ($190-ish without VAT), the Mega costs €269.90 ($285-ish without VAT), and the Premium package is €369.90 ($390-ish without VAT) when purchased directly from the ChessBase shop. The Download version, available only from the ChessBase shop, is priced at €99.90 ($105-ish without VAT). You can also upgrade from 12 to 13 (program only) for €99.90 ($105-ish without VAT). All these prices will normally be discounted when buying from Amazon sellers.

In terms of choosing between these various packages, my only advice is this: the annotated games in the Mega Database are nice to have, but you can do without them if cost is a factor. Beyond that, it’s entirely up to you.

The Missing Manual

Edwards, Jon. ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2014. 350 pp. ISBN 978-1936490547. PB List $34.95.

In my previous review, which focused on the top three chess engines currently available, I said that ChessBase 12 is a nearly mandatory purchase for improving players.  In this review I continue in that vein by reviewing a new book about ChessBase 12, a book that fills a real need in the literature.

Fun fact: I proofread and edited the English help files for ChessBase 8 way back in 2000. Even then, the manual for the ChessBase program seemed something of an afterthought, something that the authors of ChessBase put together out of necessity and nothing more. The ChessBase program has been, and continues to be, difficult to master, and the manual has never been particularly helpful to the neophyte. Some third parties, most notably Steve Lopez with his T-Notes column, tried to remedy this situation, but on the whole there has never been a truly comprehensive, user-friendly introduction to the ChessBase GUI. Until now, that is.

Jon Edwards is an ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation) Senior International Master, a USCF OTB expert, a chess teacher and an author with multiple chess related titles to his name. He is is a long-time ChessBase power user, having used the program to research his books and his openings for correspondence games. Edwards also created very early e-books for the ChessBase platform.

Edwards’ new book, ChessBase Complete: Chess in the Digital Age, is a careful and systematic introduction to the ChessBase 12 GUI and its capabilities. Over the course of 14 chapters or ‘scenarios,’ Edwards clearly explains to his readers how to use ChessBase, how to manipulate and maintain data, how to play on the Playchess server, and much more. I reproduce the chapter list from the book below:

SCENARIO 1 The Future of Chess Books (And some very simple searching)
SCENARIO 2 Maintaining Quality Data (Garbage in, Garbage out)
SCENARIO 3 Working well with ChessBase (Organizing and viewing your chess information)
SCENARIO 4 Preparing for an opponent (Because they’re preparing for you)
SCENARIO 5 Playing (At any time of the day or night)
SCENARIO 6 Playchess Tournaments (Competing for fun and profit)
SCENARIO 7 Preserving and annotating your games (Because you must)
SCENARIO 8 Honed opening preparation (No more surprises)
SCENARIO 9 Engines and Kibitzers (Subjecting your games to unbiased scrutiny)
SCENARIO 10 A Grandmaster by your Side (Complex searching made easy)
SCENARIO 11 Watching Grandmaster Chess (It’s better than baseball)
SCENARIO 12 Training and Teaching (Lighting up the board)
SCENARIO 13 Competing at Correspondence Chess (It’s not dead yet)
SCENARIO 14 Writing about Chess (With tips on printing)

Five Appendices are included, including a summary of all the features available via the GUI and – very usefully – a list of all the keyboard shortcuts used in ChessBase.

Edwards is a clear and engaging writer. He makes use of copious screenshots to assist with his tutorials, and numerous ‘tips’ are strewn through the text to remind readers of essential points. Readers are often asked to ‘learn by doing,’ and Edwards carefully leads his pupils through the tasks described in the book. And he takes the time to explain opaque terms and titles, like the ranks of players on the Playchess server.

I have been using ChessBase since the days of DOS, so most of what Edwards had to say wasn’t entirely new to me. Still, I found his discussion of constructing one’s own keys instructive, and as I’ve never played correspondence chess via ICCF, Scenario 13 was rather interesting.

Relatively few typos made it into the final text, although I did find one or two along with the occasional verbal oddity, i.e., “…an inexorable quality to [Morphy’s] games…” (210).  The ChessBase one-click web publishing service is not a joint venture with Facebook (243), and it was surprising to see that Edwards only allocated 1 to 2mb to the tablebases in his screenshots (318). For a book of this length and with this many technical details, I do not find these shortcomings unacceptable.

Players new to ChessBase 12 (or, soon, ChessBase 13) should seriously consider buying a copy of ChessBase Complete, and long-time users might want to as well. It is a sturdy tutorial to the various features of the program, and it doubles as a user-friendly reference guide. I suspect that about 90% of what you need to know about ChessBase can be found in these pages. For that last 10% I would recommend Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating, which has the finest discussion of professional level ChessBase use in print. See my review of Smith’s book for more.