Tag Archives: Chess Informant

Staying Relevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Small games, big book

Tadic, Branko, and Goran Arsovic, ed. Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures. Belgrade: Sahovski Informator, 2014. HB 560 pp.  ISBN 978-8672970715. List $53.95; approximately $44-50 at Amazon. Also available at the publisher’s website.

What makes for a miniature in chess?  The game must be short. (‘Short’ has historically meant anywhere from 15 to 25 moves.) It should be bloody, filled with tactics and blunders.  And it should be beautiful; or, at the least, there should be something aesthetically pleasing about it.

The Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures contains 1636 fully annotated games sorted by opening variation, with no game running past 20 moves.  It follows in a tradition of books of miniatures, including books by Irving Chernev, Neil McDonald and John Nunn. Is ECM an improvement on this august tradition? Yes and no.

On the one hand, there is undeniable value for your money in this book. You can find wonderful miniatures in nearly any opening variation you desire, although – and this should not surprise – the majority of the games are in the B and C sections of the ECO coding system.  Closed systems don’t lead to short slugfests as often! The game selection represents a decent cross-section of chess history, with games from Morphy (10), Anderssen (7), Alekhine (12) and Tal (12). Among contemporary players, Jobava has 6 games in the book, and Beliavsky has the most (on my scan) with 17. Even Deep Blue gets in on the action with one game – I’ll let you guess which one.

On the other hand, some of the recent games – particularly those that have also appeared in the Informant – are more workmanlike and less spectacular than their diminutive brethren. In some one of the players just makes a blunder and is duly punished. While they may technically be miniatures, they don’t feel that brilliant.  Part of this has to do with the undoubted advances in chess skill and knowledge through the years, but all the same, some of the newer games don’t sparkle the way that the older ones do.

I have found the book to be particularly useful for teaching. In my work with kids, for example, I’ve found that miniatures are both pretty and short enough to keep their attention.  I showed two games (three, including Morphy at the Opera) from this book to a student in recent weeks, but I learned something too – I knew how to handle the 4…Qh4 variation of the Scotch because I’d studied the Maczuski-Kolisch game, beating an opponent who outrated me by 200 points!

Is this book for you? If you teach chess, particularly to kids, ECM will prove very useful indeed. If you enjoy playing through tactical melees, there are plenty here. And I suspect that using this book to help learn an opening – by seeing how typical mistakes are punished – would be a fruitful endeavor.

The price may turn some people off, and its lack of ‘utility’ may dissuade others. That’s a shame. Unlike an opening book, which is outdated as soon as it is printed, this is a book that will entertain for years and years to come. Sometimes we – and by we, I mean I! – forget that chess is supposed to be fun. Playing through the games in the Encyclopedia of Chess Miniatures will help you remember.