Tag Archives: Chessable

The Tarrasch lives!

This review has been printed in the January 2020 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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Bezgodov, Alexey. The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917685. PB 320pp.

Ehlvest, Jaan. Grandmaster Opening Preparation. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830526. PB 272pp.

l’Ami, Erwin. Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation. Online course from chessable.com.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Fight 1. d4 with the Tarrasch!: A Complete Black Repertoire vs. 1.d4. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2019. ISBN 978-1949859072. PB 384pp.

I have long thought that the Tarrasch Defense (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5) is the Swiss Army knife of chess openings. It forces players to learn how to handle the Isolated Queen’s Pawn, a fundamental structure that appears across multiple opening variations, and it can be reached from a number of move orders, including both 1. c4 and 1. Nf3.

But the Tarrasch is also one of those openings that suffers from the vagaries of taste and fashion. Spassky made it popular when he used it to defeat Petrosian in the 1969 World Championship match, and it was a key part of the young Kasparov’s repertoire in the early 1980s.

It went out of favor after Karpov’s victories of Kasparov in their first World Championship match. Despite Grischuk reviving the 9. …c4 line in the late ‘aughts, and the contemporaneous publication of two books – Aagaard and Ntirils’ Grandmaster Repertoire 10: The Tarrasch Defense (2011), and Sam Collins’ The Tarrasch Defense: Move by Move (2013) – it has been neglected by the world’s elite.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back once more. Magnus Carlsen recently trotted out the Tarrasch at the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz; in doing so, he was perhaps inspired by the games of his former second, Daniil Dubov, who has reinvigorated a dormant line of the Tarrasch – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Bc5 – and made it a key part of his repertoire.

Dubov’s invention is the subject of a new course on Chessable from Erwin L’ami, a Dutch Grandmaster and second to both Topalov and Giri. Over the course of 54 trainable variations in “Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation,” L’ami dissects the Dubov variation, explaining in great detail the nuances of Dubov’s ideas. Here is a brief overview, using a game between Dubov and Hikaru Nakamura as our example.

The “Dubov Variation” [D33]
Hikaru Nakamura
Daniil Dubov
Moscow FIDE GP (2), 20.05.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 exd5 6.d4 Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Nb3

A key alternative is 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.0–0 0–0 11.Na4 Bb6 12.Nxb6 axb6 13.Qc2 c5 as in Nakamura,H (2754)-Dubov,D (2700) Paris 2019.

9…Bb6!

The defining move in Dubov’s approach.

10.0–0

Other ideas:

(a) 10.Nxd5 is met by 10. … Be6 – “development before everything,” says L’ami!

(b) 10.Na4 0–0 11.Nxb6 axb6 12.Be3 h5!? (Mamedyarov,S (2765)-Dubov,D (2700) Riga 2019)

10…d4 11.Na4 0–0 12.Bg5 Re8 13.Nxb6

13.Re1 is “the big test” according to L’ami. After the forcing 13…h6 14.Nxb6 axb6 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Qxd4 Black has to prove compensation for the pawn. L’ami analyzes out to move 37 in the main line, claiming an equal endgame.

13…axb6 14.e3 d3 15.Bxf6 gxf6

diagram3

Modern chess at its finest! Black’s pawns are an utter disaster, but his pieces and the d3-passer more than make up for the structural weaknesses. The game was drawn after:

16.a3 Be6 17.Rc1 Rc8 18.Rc3 Ne5 19.Nd4 Rxc3 20.bxc3 Qc7 21.Qd2 Bd7 22.Re1 Rc8 23.Rc1 Qc5 24.f4 Nc4 25.Qxd3 Qxa3 26.Rb1 Nd6 27.Ne2 Bf5 28.e4 ½–½

L’ami does an excellent job of clarifying the nature of Black’s compensation in key positions, and his research is thorough. I could find no major omissions after a few hours of scrutiny with both Stockfish and the latest Fat Fritz.

The course is also perfect for Chessable, which prides itself on its use of spaced repetition in its “MoveTrainer.” Not every book translates well to the platform, but L’ami’s course is relatively short, and the variations are carefully broken down for training purposes. Perhaps the only question about the course is its price.

“Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation” is $12.98 for the trainable analysis, while $42.98 gets you the moves and a two hour video. L’ami’s ChessBase DVD on the Tarrasch costs €29.90 or roughly $33, and unlike the Chessable course, it presents its viewers with a full Tarrasch repertoire (not including the Dubov line). It’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but buyers are getting less material for more money on Chessable if they choose the video option.

Another option for Tarrasch players looking for complete coverage of the the opening is Vassilos Kotronias’ new title from Russell Enterprises. Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch: A Complete Black Repertoire vs 1.d4 arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox, as Kotronias had announced his “return to pure chess-playing” in the introduction to his fifth and final volume on the King’s Indian in 2017. With this new book, Kotronias continues to meet the standard of excellence found in his Quality Chess titles, and in some ways, he may have exceeded it.

Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch includes a coherent repertoire against the London, neo-Trompowsky, Colle, and Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. The meat of the book is devoted to the Tarrasch proper, with the “new mainline” of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4 at its center. (Kotronias discusses the traditional 9. … cxd4 in a three page aside, and there is no coverage of the Dubov line.) The analysis is exhaustive, and while the book sometimes skimps on references to other sources, this is more than made up for by the avalanche of new ideas.

Here’s an example, one relevant to those who might want to play the Dubov variation.

Kotronias on 6. dxc5 [D32]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5

Though it looks innocuous, this move has proved quite a challenge for Tarrasch players, and L’ami urges his readers to take it seriously. Kotronias introduces (194-221) an important new idea in a critical line.

6…d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Qd2

9.Bd2 is the other move. After 9. … Qxc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.e3 Kotronias analyzes two ideas: the “solid option” 11…Nf6!? and the riskier 11…dxe3 12.Bxe3 Qxb2. Black equalizes after the gambit idea 10.b4!? Nxb4 11.Rc1 Qd6.

9…Qxc5 10.a3

Intending b2–b4 and the long fianchetto. 10.e3 is nothing to worry about after 10…dxe3 11.Qxe3+ Qxe3+ 12.Bxe3 Nge7.

10…Nf6!?

A novelty that the engine hates until high depths, but over the course of 10 (!!) pages Kotronias shows that 10. … Nf6 is fully playable. His analysis extends out to a 4 vs 3 same-side rook endgame, and the notes are both deep and didactic, even including a thumbnail sketch of how to draw such an ending.

10…Nge7 was Aagaard & Ntirlis’ suggestion. Kotronias analyzes it too, giving 11.b4 Qb6 as his mainline, but also offering the “evil” idea of 11…Qh5!?.

11.b4 Qe7!

Kotronias shows that Black can sacrifice the pawn with 12.Nxd4 (12.b5 Ne4!) 12…Nxd4 13.Qxd4 0–0 with analysis going to the 38th move.

I was stunned by the depth and density of Kotronias’ book. The influence of the engine is obvious, but compared to the King’s Indian books, this one was ‘chattier,’ filled with interesting positional asides and insights into his thought processes. Readers will learn about chess while learning the Tarrasch, and not every book can claim that.

The only drawback to Kotronias’ book is the layout. It uses an old-style ‘nested variation’ model of presentation, a difficulty exacerbated by the depth of analysis, and there are no indications in page headers or footers as to chapter or variation. I found myself continually having to refer to the table of contents to orient myself, and too often I was flipping pages trying to find specific lines on crammed pages. Were this a Quality Chess publication, I suspect that what is one volume here would have been at least two.

Design problems notwithstanding, Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch! is an impressive, encyclopedic work, and it should now be seen as the definitive work on the Tarrasch. It is perhaps best suited for advanced players and those already familiar with the opening, given its density and ‘no holds barred’ approach to analysis.

For those looking for an introduction to the Tarrasch, or for analysis of the traditional 9. … cxd4 lines, there is Alexey Bezgodov’s 2017 The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Bezgodov presents a Tarrasch repertoire using a complete game format, and his notes are clear and to the point. He also includes two interesting sections worth mentioning.

In the first, “Four ‘bad’ lines that are actually good,” Bezgodov tries to rehabilitate a number of Tarrasch lines that history has deemed substandard, including the “Keres System,” or the Dubov variation mentioned above. While he does not anticipate Dubov’s key 9. … Bb6 idea, he does confirm the viability of the general approach in other lines.

Bezgodov also gives the “Giants of the Tarrasch Defense” their own section, using the games of Keres, Spassky, Gligoric, and Kasparov to show the historical progression of the opening. Importantly he shows how these players approached the Tarrasch with both colors, something overlooked in many such studies.

A final word on another book that treats the Tarrasch from a historical perspective: Jaan Ehlvest’s Grandmaster Opening Preparation (2018) is an absolutely fascinating work that tries to merge the insights of pre-computer Soviet training with those derived from our metal friends. While Ehlvest’s concern is to show how to approach the creation and maintenance of opening repertoires in general, the Tarrasch and IQP are key examples, with over 100 pages devoted to showing how ideas in the IQP grew and transformed. Despite an unfortunate aside about “women’s openings,” it’s a worthwhile read, especially for strong players interested in meta-opening considerations.

Books and Beyond

This review has been printed in the January 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.

Readers interested in seeing a video review of the new features in ChessBase 15 may be interested in this:

https://youtu.be/MBGz4ol_0-g

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There are precious few pleasures left for the modern American air passenger. The lines are long. The seats are small. The snacks are very, very sad.

One consolation, at least for this weary, wordy traveler, is the in-terminal magazine stand. With so many magazines in print, and with limits to what one can responsibly subscribe, it is a great consolation to be able to pick an interesting looking issue of something off the shelf and distract myself with it while airborne.

I will admit that I picked up the October 2018 issue of Harpers because I mistook the cover author, Will Self, for NPR’s “enigmatologist” Will Shortz. Opening to the cover story, “The Printed Word in Peril: Reading, Writing, and the Tyranny of the Virtual,” I was quickly disabused of my misconception.

Self’s concern is debatable but simple. The literary novel is, on his account, becoming a “conservatory form” like easel painting or symphonic music, with BDDM – bidirectional digital media, or the apps and screens that link our devices to the cloud – being chiefly responsible for its demise. There does seem to be something to this phenomenon. After all, who has the sitzlfleish to read Middlemarch when there is another game of Fortnite to play?

Whatever one may think of Self’s points, it’s easy to see how they might be relevant for chess players and publishers. Chess streamers boast thousands of viewers on Twitch and YouTube. The publishing landscape is tilting towards digital media and products – just have a look at the latest catalogue from USCF Sales, where there are nearly as many pages devoted to software and videos as books!

This month we are renaming this column from “Looks at Books” to “Books and Beyond.” Our focus will remain on printed chess literature, which remains the center of theoretical discussion and output, and which generally continues to grow in quality with innovative publishers and the aid of our silicon friends.

We will also, from time to time, expand our focus a bit and investigate new digital products and programs. In this month’s column, we’ll look at two of the most interesting non-book releases in recent months: the granddaddy of all chess software, ChessBase, and Chessable, the new kid on the block.

ChessBase is the leading chess software manufacturer in the world, and its market share among the chess elite reaches monopoly status. Almost every leading player uses its products, and none more so than its flagship program, the eponymous database manager ChessBase, newly released in its 15th edition.

C15SplashL

The core functions of ChessBase all revolve around data management. Users can collect, maintain, and search vast collections of games to study openings, middlegame structures, and typical endings with plug-in engines like Fritz, Komodo, or Stockfish. Many of these core functions have been fairly mature since, say, ChessBase 7. So why would anyone need a newer version?

ChessBase had for some time answered this question with two words: the Cloud. Beginning with ChessBase 11, users could access online game databases from within the GUI. In ChessBase 12 the ‘Let’s Check’ feature from Fritz 13 was ported over, remote access to engines via the ‘Engine Cloud’ was introduced, and new analysis and search functions appeared. With ChessBase 13 the ‘ChessBase Cloud’ was born, allowing users to store and share data on ChessBase’s servers, and taking initial steps towards integrating ChessBase web account features into the program.

ChessBase’s authors returned their focus to in-program innovation with ChessBase 14. ‘Tactical analysis’ – automated engine analysis of specific games, previously available only in the Fritz interface – was introduced, as was assisted analysis, which provided tactical tips via the color-coding of possible moves. The way that games were saved changed, so that what was two functions – save and replace – became one unified process.

ChessBase 15 continues in this vein, with an impressive list of new features and tweaks that refresh the venerable program. Among the most important of these is ‘replay training,’ revamping training features to make them more interactive.

Replay Training

When the Training tab is activated, ChessBase keeps track of user accuracy in predicting moves, and an internal engine – a modified version of Ginkgo – assesses their relative strength. That same internal engine operates in “Instant Analysis,” a feature where games are very quickly analyzed upon loading, with each move’s evaluation appearing in a bar graph below the notation window.

CB15 game window

Search functions are also improved in ChessBase 15. There is a simplified, ‘one-line’ search for quick queries, and a number of new and upgraded search types are possible, including resulting endgame probabilities and plan explorers for specific positions.

My favorite new feature, however, is introduction of a tactical search mask. Users can now search databases for specific tactical themes, ranging from double attacks to overworked pieces to back-rank weaknesses.

Tactics Search Mask

The results are not perfect – every double attack is found through this search, even banal ones – but mining data for interesting tactics has never been easier.

One of ChessBase’s strengths is its ability to continue to innovate so far into its lifespan. Some changes, like the move towards the Cloud, are fairly organic, arising from broader technological advances. Others appear to be direct responses to competitor’s products.

The Deep Analysis feature introduced in ChessBase 12 and 13 is a take on Interactive Deep Analysis, or IDeA, in Convekta’s Aquarium program. The new training tab in ChessBase 15 has clear antecedents in openings trainers like Chess Position Trainer, ChessBase’s own Cloud Opening Trainer, and, most recently, Chessable.

chessable_logo_square_large

Chessable is a new website / “webservice” gaining quite a bit of mindshare with tech-savvy players. Part of this has to do with its association with IM John Bartholomew, one of chess’ leading streaming personalities, who also serves as Chessable’s Chief Communications Officer and co-founder. Bartholomew is a big draw in the streaming / e-sport landscape, and his involvement with the platform has undoubtedly aided in its rise to prominence.

The real selling point for Chessable, however, comes in its claims about the scientific basis of its product. Chessable combines the concept of spaced repetition – the repeating of learned material across increasingly wide intervals of time – with gamification features to create an effective and ‘sticky’ form of chess learning. Instead of using low-tech flashcards, users train their knowledge of opening lines, tactics, and endgames on the website, receiving nudges and rewards for returning each day.

The Chessable interface (“MoveTrainer”) is simple and attractive. From the main menu, users can choose to ‘review’ or ‘learn’ material in courses they own. ‘Learn’ takes users to the next new position in the course, where you can replay read-only lines or solve new problems. ‘Review’ runs uses through material they have already studied, using spaced repetition to emphasize moves and positions incorrectly solved.

chessable problem

Chessable was originally designed as an openings trainer, and it’s easy to see how a spaced repetition model of learning might be attractive in that context. Users can study an opening variation through a Chessable-produced course, with both free and paid content available, and they can also create their own courses by manually inputting variations or uploading .pgn files. The platform also allows for the study of tactics and endgames, both of which also lend themselves to a spaced-repetition approach.

Chessable is free to use, albeit with two important caveats. Some features of the MoveTrainer interface are only available for paid or Pro users. Among these features are the auto-tagging of moves or positions that you solve incorrectly, allowing for the study of “difficult moves,” access to advanced study and replay settings, and use of a full-depth opening explorer. Some courses, as mentioned above, are also paywalled.

Which of these tools should you consider buying? For me, ChessBase is the rare product that lives up to its advertising. When Garry Kasparov says that ChessBase is the most important innovation in chess since the printing press, he is not exaggerating. If you are a real student of the game, and you are not using ChessBase, you are shortchanging yourself.

The real question comes for those who are already using ChessBase. Is it worth upgrading to 15? For those using ChessBase 12, my sense was that updating to versions 13 or 14 was not entirely necessary unless specific features were of great personal value.

The weight of the cumulative improvements in ChessBase 15 may alter this recommendation. The auto-analysis features in 14 and 15 are useful, the integration of Cloud and web features is ever-tightening, and search enhancements are truly impressive. 15 introduces a new, backward compatible database booster that speeds all manners of searches, and the tactical search is a show-stopper. ChessBase is a mature, best-of-class product, and I cannot imagine seriously studying chess without it.

I have to admit my skepticism about Chessable when I first started using the site, and there are still some UI quirks that I could do without. As time passed, however, I began to see why its users are so rabidly attached to it.

The gamification features help to inculcate a strong study habit in users, and while spaced repetition may not be the panacea that Chessable claims it to be, it is indisputably useful to review material in a structured way. Newcomers may want to try a free course – the ‘Short and Sweet: The London Opening’ and ‘Olympiad Tactics 2018’ titles come to mind – to see if the platform speaks to their needs.