Tag Archives: Chessbase

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.

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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.

Learning Openings with Online Videos

This review essay has been printed in the August 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

——

Frank Brady, friend and biographer of Bobby Fischer, tells a story about his asking the future world champion for chess lessons in 1964. “For the first lesson,” Fischer told him, “I want you to play over every column of Modern Chess Openings, including footnotes.” Brady, understandably shocked, asked Fischer what they’d cover next. “And for the next lesson,” came the reply, “I want you to do it again.”[1]

Was Fischer serious? Probably not. Still, the severity of his proposed methods makes clear the import he placed on the opening, on its study, and on the value of Modern Chess Openings in the pre-computer age.

There is, of course, still a place for the one-volume encyclopedia in 21st Century chess, but today we have more options for learning our openings. New monographs continue to be published at a steady clip and on increasingly esoteric topics. The Informant series and the New in Chess Yearbooks are locked in a battle for superiority and market-share. Those slightly ahead of the curve subscribe to ChessPublishing.com, which provides monthly theoretical updates in twelve opening sub-fields.

But most popular, especially with the younger crowd, are videos. I realized this when a local junior recently ventured the Colorado Counter-Gambit (1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 f5?!?) against me in a club game. Not knowing this particular pawn-push – it wasn’t in MCO! – I asked where he’d learned it. The answer, naturally, was an online video.

In this essay I’ll review five of the paid video sites in alphabetical order, focusing specifically on their offerings in the opening. Each site has content worthy of your time and money. The goal of this review is to point you in the right direction to begin your studies.

Chess.com

Chess.com, along with its sister site chesskid.com, is probably the largest chess website in the world by userbase. While many of its diverse features are free to all users, only Diamond members ($99/yr, $14/mo) can watch videos. The videos consist of a 2D chessboard with voiceover, and they stream in your browser or inside a chess.com mobile app. A few of the videos come with pgns for future study, but none are available for individual purchase or download.

There are many IMs and GMs among the chess.com stable of authors, and more than a few have produced video series on their pet systems – Keaton Kiewra on the Dragon, for instance, or Eugene Perelshteyn on the King’s Indian. Fans of Roman Dzindzichashvili will note his prolific output for the site, with many of his videos devoted to diverse topics in the opening. Ben Finegold, currently on the chess.com and chesskid.com staff, is equally busy with opening videos.

Searching for specific opening tabiya or series is a bit clunky, as tagging is haphazard, but time poring through the archives is well spent. Sam Shankland’s 2009 series on the Najdorf is worth your attention, and Gregory Kaidanov’s videos on a 1.e4 repertoire for White are great for class players.

Chess24.com

Chess24 is the newest of the sites under review, and while it remains a work in progress, its early days have been quite promising. The site is the home for the web coverage of the Tromso Chess Olympiad, and the Norway Chess 2014 event was broadcast there. Chess24 has also lured a number of top players to their studios to produce videos, including two former world champions (Kasimdzhanov and Anand) and multiple 2600+ players.

Much of the early advertising for Chess24 featured a video series by Peter Svidler on the Grunfeld, and with good reason: the videos are fantastic. Over the course of 12+ hours, Svidler gives viewers an in-depth look at his approach to the Grunfeld, and he holds nothing back in his analysis. All of White’s tries are covered, and lines against 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 are included. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Videos stream in your browser, but not in the Chess24 mobile app. The presenter appears to the right of a 2D board, with the moves appearing on the 2D board in synchronicity with her words. The board and pieces are slightly jarring on first glance, but you get used to them quickly enough. Links to an opening database and an analytical engine appear beneath the board, and you can pause the video to try a move on the board and see the engine’s analysis. No pgns are available, but e-books for some videos may appear by the time of the Olympiad.

All videos are available to Premium members ($135.99/yr), or they can be purchased individually. Svidler’s series is available for $39.99. Other opening series of note include Jan Gustafsson on building a 1.d4 repertoire ($15.99), Sopiko Guramishvili on the Najdorf ($15.99), and Robin van Kampen on the King’s Indian ($24.99).

ChessBase

ChessBase is a behemoth in the world of chess software. They sell ChessBase 12, the database used by most every titled player in the world, along with analytical engines like Houdini and Fritz. ChessBase has turned increasing attention to chess videos, and given their prominence in the chess world, many strong European players record videos for ChessBase when they pass through Hamburg.

Videos from ChessBase can only be viewed from within ChessBase, the Fritz/Houdini programs, or the free ChessBase Reader. All are Windows only, leaving non-savvy Linux and Mac users out in the cold. Moves appear on the chessboard in synchronicity with the presenter video, and all of the features of the ChessBase interface are available to the user. You can check a move with your engine of choice while the video runs, and the analysis given in each video is nearly always provided for future study.

Most of the ChessBase videos are available to purchase via download. Prices range from €9.90 for the ’60 Minutes’ series of videos to €29.90 for current full-length DVDs. There is value at both ends of the spectrum. Super-GMs like Shirov and van Wely have made engaging videos in the ’60 Minutes’ series on the Winawer and the Najdorf, respectively, and I have given Henrik Danielsen’s video on the London System a positive review on my blog (chessbookreviews.wordpress.com).

Among full-length DVDs, Peter Heine Nielsen, former assistant to Anand and current Carlsen second, has recorded an impressive twopart series on the Dragon, with some of his analysis reaching into the endgame. I have also found the ‘ChessBase Tutorials’ series on the openings to be quite useful. Between the five DVDs in the series, nearly every major opening system or variation is summarized in about fifteen minutes time, making them handy for your next game against the local Grob fanatic.

Chessclub.com

I’ve been a member of chessclub.com – which I still call by its old name, ICC, or the Internet Chess Club – since it went commercial in 1995, and I still tend to think of it in terms of all-night blitz binges from college. In recent years, however, ICC has put a lot of time and effort into its video offerings, and it now competes on a fairly even playing field with all the other sites discussed in this piece.

There are multiple types of membership at ICC, ranging from the month-to-month ($9.95/mo) to the yearly ($69.95/yr), but all paid members are able to view all video content on the site. Three series are of particular interest as regards the opening: Ronen Har-Zvi’s opening videos, Boris Alterman’s ‘Gambit Guides,’ and – especially – John Watson’s ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ series. (Disclosure: I have taken lessons from John and consider him a friend.)

In ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense,’ Watson offers viewers opening repertoires specifically designed for club players, and for both colors. Recent series have focused on the Queen’s Gambit, the French, and 1.e4, among others. The videos are a deft mix of ideas and analysis, and players of all temperaments can find something to suit their needs.

While ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ is still in production, you’ll have to dig into the archives to find videos on the opening from Ronen Har-Zvi and Boris Alterman. Alterman’s videos focused on opening gambits, and they served as the basis for his two books from Quality Chess on the same subject. Har-Zvi’s videos covered a broad swath of opening lines with his trademark enthusiasm.

Non-members are now able to purchase and download many of these videos, with prices usually running about $2.99 per video. Oddly there is no discount when buying a multi-video series. Some videos come with pgns, but the detail contained in the files varies greatly. All videos are viewable in ICC’s app for iOS and in your browser.

ChessLecture.com

Chesslecture.com is not the fanciest website around, but what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in content. There are 2300+ videos available as I write these words, giving Chesslecture.com one of the deepest archives of material around. Many of the leading video authors have recorded for Chesslecture or do so now. It is currently the exclusive home for two of the best video authors around: Dennis Monokroussos and David Vigorito.

The website is mainly text driven, but the search options are plentiful once you learn where to look. You can sort videos by author or broad category on the left side of the screen, and there is a search box at the top right that allows queries by title, keyword, ECO code or author. The indexing and tagging of specific videos leaves something to be desired, but you can generally find what you want without excessive difficulty.

There are a lot of gems hidden in the back catalogue. David Vigorito’s videos are consistently excellent. His early series on the Bb5 Sicilian and the Tarrasch Defense remain useful and, generally speaking, theoretically valid. Any of Vigorito’s series, quite frankly, can be recommended without hesitation.

Membership at Chesslecture.com begins at $99.99/yr or $12.95/mo; if you want to download videos, you must be a Gold member ($229.99/yr or $24.95/mo). Some videos come with pgns, but again, detail varies greatly. Members can buy custom DVDs with their choice of video content, and non-members can purchase some Chesslecture.com content in DVD format at onlinechesslessons.net. [Correction: You can also buy ChessLecture videos on DVD at dvd.chesslecture.com directly from ChessLecture.]

YouTube

Some readers might be looking at all the dollar signs in this review and wondering about free alternatives. They do exist, although – as is always the case with ‘amateur’ content – quality can vary greatly. Let me point out six YouTube users to whom you might want to subscribe.

Chessexplained: Christof Sielecki, a German IM, offers his blitz games, tournament recaps, and a number of series on opening repertoires.

GregShahadechess: These videos by Greg Shahade usually involve his talking through his thoughts as he plays online games or solves puzzles. Very educational, but the language can get a little rough for sensitive viewers.

GJ_Chess: Gunjan Jani is the source for the videos on the Colorado Counter-Gambit mentioned above. What he lacks in playing strength he makes up for in enthusiasm and self-promotion!

kingscrusher: Tryfon Gavriel is a prolific producer of video, with 5000+ videos on YouTube. Gavriel analyzes games and talks through his online blitz games.

STLChessClub: All lectures from the St Louis Chess Club are recorded and appear here. The lectures are by GMs and IMs who visit the club.

Zibbit: Icelandic FM Ingvar Johannesson focuses on game analysis in his videos.


[1] This story has been told by Brady in a few forms, the most widely known of which can be found in his classic Bobby Fischer: Profiles of a Prodigy (260). He dates the exchange in a speech in Dallas in November 2011.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part II

In Part I of this buying guide, I discussed digital clocks and the central element in chess software, the GUI.  Here, in Part II, I will provide options for the purchase of chess databases and engines.  Finally, I will list in Part III a veritable cornucopia of chess books for that special chess player in your life.  Really, let’s be honest: isn’t your chess player worth it? Smile

As I wrote in Part I, there are three components or facets of chess software that every aspiring chess player should own.  First, there is the GUI, or the graphical interface.  I discussed both ChessBase 12, a full database solution for chess data, and the Fritz family of GUIs, which have limited database function but include playing engines and capabilities.  Second, there is the database itself, containing millions of games, and in some cases, audio and video instruction.  Finally, there is the engine, that dab of programming magic that analyzes the position and provides super-GM output.

Here, in Part II, I will discuss the two main databases available from ChessBase, as well as a number of options for chess engines.  Readers who are coming to this post without having read Part I are advised to read that piece at their leisure.

Database: ChessBase is the author of two reference databases, the Big and Mega Databases.  (The data in each database is identical, save the fact that there are no annotated games in the Big Database and approximately 68,000 of them in the Mega.)  New editions of each are published each November, and the 2014 edition of the Big and Mega Databases is now available.

The download and installation process for the Mega Database is fairly easy, but be warned: the main database is over a gigabyte of data compressed, so it will take some time to download.  The installer required a few clicks, and soon enough, the icon for Mega Database 2014 was sitting in my ChessBase window, ready for my use.

Mega Database contains approximately 5.8 million games, 68k or so of which are annotated.  The database has a number of indexes or ‘keys’ that users can search to pinpoint just what they are looking for: a specific player, an opening position, a tournament, or even a tactical motif.  ChessBase 12 users have many more search and key options than do users of the GUI; this, to me, is one of the reasons that (if finances allow) ChessBase 12 should be on your shopping list.

Long-time computer users will remember the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.  If your data is ‘dirty,’  your output will suffer.  One of the great things about the Big and Mega Databases is that they are absolutely pristine.  ChessBase employs full time data-wranglers – two GMs among them – to update the database, keep player names correct, etc.  They also offer free weekly updates to the Big and Mega Databases for download with purchase, allowing your chess player to keep her database completely up to date.

There are lots of other goodies included with these databases, including a player encyclopedia with pictures of thousands of players around the globe.  I don’t use this feature, to be frank, so I can’t speak to it.  Interested parties can check out Albert Silver’s review at chessbase.com.

If your player is serious about their chess software, they’ll need a reference database.  The Big and Mega Databases are the best around, and they’re well worth your purchase.  Either will be a valuable addition to your player’s setup.  The annotated games are nice, but feel free to save a little money here and go with the Big Database.  Access to the games is what’s important.

The Big Database is available at Amazon for just over $50, and the Mega Database sells there for about $150.  If you’re in a time crunch, of course, you can always directly purchase and download both the Big Database and Mega Database from ChessBase.  Note that if your favorite player has an older version of the Mega Database, you can also purchase an update to the 2014 edition for a reduced price at the ChessBase site.

(Note: ChessBase also publishes dozens upon dozens of training DVDs and downloads.  Any one would probably be a welcome gift for your player, but recommending any specific training module would require some knowledge of your player, what openings she plays, etc.  Peruse their wares at your leisure and see if maybe something strikes your fancy.)

Engines: All of the Fritz family of GUIs come with playing engines.  These engines can be plugged into ChessBase 12, or they can run on their own inside the Fritz GUIs.  (ChessBase 12 includes an older version of the Fritz engine and an open-source engine called Crafty.  Both are plenty strong, but neither is state of the art.)  There are three commercial engines to consider for your gift giving needs, but I’ll also clue you in on some free alternatives as well.

  • Deep Fritz 14: Fritz is the granddaddy of commercial engines, but with this year’s release of version 14, a few things have changed.  The old Fritz engine has been retired, and the ‘new’ Fritz is actually the 2013 medal-winning Pandix engine by Gyula Horváth.  In contrast to older Fritzes, Deep Fritz 14 is a multi-processor engine, meaning that it can run on up to eight cores at once.  This dramatically speeds up the search and strength of the engine.  Deep Fritz 14 comes with a 1.5 million game database.
  • Houdini 4: Houdini 4 is a UCI engine sold by ChessBase in the Fritz interface.  Basically you get the same GUI as with Deep Fritz, but instead of the Deep Fritz engine, it comes with Houdini 4.  Robert Houdart is the author of Houdini, and the engine is generally considered to be the strongest engine publicly available.  Houdini is also the engine of choice for many grandmasters in their published analysis.  It, like all of the Fritz GUIs, comes with a 1.5 million game database.
  • Komodo: Komodo, unlike Fritz or Houdini, is not sold by ChessBase.  It is also a UCI engine, and it is currently developed by IM Larry Kaufman and Mark Lefler.  The late Don Dailey was the original author of the engine, and Kaufman and Lefler are continuing its development after Dailey’s recent untimely death.  The current version – Komodo TCEC – just won a major tournament, staking its claim to being one of the top engines in the world.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon for about $80, and you can also purchase a downloadable version of the GUI / engine combo at ChessBase for about the same price.  Both versions include a six month premier membership at Playchess.com, allowing your gift-recipient to watch videos and live tournament broadcasts online for free.

Houdini 4 comes in two flavors: the Standard, which runs on up to six cores, and the Professional, which will run on up to thirty-two.  Houdini 4 Standard sells on Amazon for about $100, and the Pro version will run you $116.  As always, you can order a downloadable version of the Standard and the Pro from ChessBase for about the same price.  The ChessBase Houdini also comes with a six month premier Playchess membership.

Readers should note that Houdini is also available as a stand-alone purchase directly from Houdart.  Buying Houdini 4 directly from the author is slightly cheaper (Standard is about $55, Pro is just over $80) and will also allow your player to access discounted updates to the engine in the future.  This purchase does not include a GUI, but it might make sense if your player has an older version of the Fritz or Houdini interface and just needs the latest and greatest engine.

Komodo is only available from the developers.  It is currently the cheapest option at $49.95, and it also requires some kind of GUI for its proper use.

From my perspective, Houdini and Komodo are the two strongest engines available for purchase.  (There is a third engine – Stockfish – that might be about as strong as Houdini and Komodo, but I leave that to your research.)  I’ve used Houdini extensively in my own chess study, and its analysis is both fast and frighteningly accurate.  Komodo is slightly slower in terms of its search, but it makes up for that relative slowness with a highly precise positional sense.  Deep Fritz is, of course, strong as well – most any modern engine will destroy even top GMs in over-the-board play – but it’s not in the same league as Houdini or Komodo.

Were I to choose one, I’d go with Houdini.  It gets to the depths of the position quickly, making it indispensible for analytical work and chess study.  Komodo is nearly as good a choice, and Deep Fritz – while coming in third in this race – will also serve your gift recipient well.

Summary of buying chess software: Chess software, as I have said, involves three elements – the GUI, the database, and the engine.  The GUI is the most basic of these, and that without which the other two are inaccessible.

For that reason, my number one recommendation for a gift for your player is the Houdini 4 Standard engine and GUI from ChessBase. [ Amazon link | ChessBase downloadable link ]  You can play against Houdini and have it analyze your games, and both the included database and database functions are sufficient for most players.  If your gift is your player’s first step into the world of chess software, Houdini 4 will be a real pleaser.

More advanced players – in terms of rating or ambition – would be thrilled to own the full ChessBase 12 package.  The standard package [ Amazon link | ChessBase link ] includes the Big Database and will serve your player well for years to come.   If you’re hoping to save a little money, consider the downloadable version of ChessBase 12 from ChessBase, and tell your gift-ee to download free games updated weekly at Mark Crowther’s wonderful website The Week in Chess.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part I

I’m beginning a new tradition at Chess Book Reviews this holiday season.  I know that it can be a real challenge for the non-initiate to determine what to buy for the chess player in their lives.  Well-meaning loved ones choose the wrong things with the best of intentions, and how can we blame them?  There’s so much chess swag out there, and if you’re not obsessed by the game, it’s easy to go wrong.  It’s my fervent hope that chess players the world over receive better-chosen gifts as a result of these three blog entries.  (Such hubris, John.  Such hubris!)

The first rule of buying for a chess player is this: unless they are a chess set collector, never buy them a themed chess set.  They look cute, and who doesn’t love Homer Simpson as the White King, or the Aztecs and Mayans battling it out over 64 squares?  The only problem is this: they can’t be used in tournament play.  Both USCF and FIDE rules have very specific regulations for boards, pieces and clocks.  In my experience – and again, if your loved one collects themed sets, ignore this – the novelty pieces and boards are set on a shelf in the closet, rarely to be visited again.

If, however, you want to give your friend chess equipment, consider giving them a digital chess clock, especially if they only have one of the old-fashioned mechanical ones.  (Older players are likely to still have and use these, in my experience.)    The advantage of a digital clock is that it allows for time controls that include either delays or increments, both of which are becoming standard in modern chess.  I can recommend two:

  • The Saitek Mephisto Competition Clock, which costs about $40 at Amazon.  This is the ubiquitous ‘blue clock’ that one sees at scholastic tournaments.  It’s extremely durable and fairly easy to program.  I coach a high school team, and this is the clock we use.
  • The DGT North American Chess Clock.  I have less experience with this clock, but others have recommended it to me, and I have used it successfully in rated play.

Most serious chess players will already have equipment, so chess books and software are the best choices for the real aficionados that you are buying for.  In this remainder of this first installment of the Buying Guide, I’m going to talk about chess GUIs.  In the second, I’ll talk about databases and engines, and in the third, I’ll recommend a number of books for different types of players and different age levels.

I think owning and using the right chess software is very important for the serious chess player.  There are a few main software publishers out there, but for anyone who isn’t Russian, I’d highly recommend using the ChessBase family of programs.  I’ve been using ChessBase programs and data – and here I’m dating myself – since the days of DOS.  I honestly believe that any serious player who is not using ChessBase to study and analyze is at a competitive disadvantage.

There are three components, as it were, to chess software.  First, there is the GUI.  This program allows users to reads and writes chess data.  Engines plug into the GUI, allowing users to get the computer’s opinion on various moves and positions.  You can play against some, but not all, GUIs.  Second, there is the database itself, which is indexed by player, opening, ending, or any of a host of other criteria.  The best databases are professionally curated and contains deep notes to some of the games contained in the data.  Some data also comes with audio or video training embedded within it.  Third, there is the engine.  An engine is the bit of software that allows the computer to analyze a position or game.  Most engines require a graphical interface (GUI) for ease of use.

ChessBase offers buyers all three components or elements of a complete chess software package.  I’ll talk about each in turn.

GUI: There are two choices for GUI within the Chessbase family.

ChessBase 12 is a complete database package, allowing users to read and write data in a nearly limitless fashion.  You can plug engines into the GUI to help with analysis, and there are various abilities to access online game data embedded in the GUI.  Users can export their games to text files, epubs, or to webpages hosted by Chessbase with one click.  It can read all of the training programs and DVDs produced by Chessbase, and the GUI also includes the Playchess.com software, which is Chessbase’s online chess playing site.

ChessBase 12 is the gold standard for chess software, and if you can afford it, it would be a fantastic gift for the chess player on your list.  There are three different packages out there, with the main difference being that the Starter package comes with a game database stripped of annotations, while the Mega includes them.  I don’t think the Premium package is worth the extra cost, but your mileage may vary.

Amazon has the Starter package for approximately $160, while the Mega package is about $260.  You can also download the program directly from ChessBase for about $140, but be aware that (1) you won’t get the game database in the download, and (2) the download version does not come with a membership at Playchess.

Deep Fritz 14 and Houdini 4 are another type of GUI from Chessbase.  They can read and write ChessBase databases with some limitations; as compensation, you can play games against the engine and GUI, which you can’t do in ChessBase 12, and the GUI will automatically analyze your games if you wish.  (For me, playing against the engine is far too masochistic an enterprise, but It can be useful to play out special positions against the computer for practice.)  These GUI comes with a smaller game database, but one that is entirely sufficient for most players.  Most importantly, Deep Fritz 14 and the stronger Houdini 4 include the engines for which the GUIs are named.

It’s harder to manipulate data in Deep Fritz or Houdini than it is ChessBase 12, and there are far fewer data indices or ‘keys’ available to the user.  Still, unless you’re doing heavy duty database work, you can do everything you need to do within Deep Fritz or Houdini.  I have both and use both.  If pressed, I’d probably choose ChessBase, even with the extra cost.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon, and costs approximately $80.  Houdini 4 Standard, which runs on up to six cores, is $99.95, and Houdini 4 Pro is  $115.95 and runs on up to 32 cores. Naturally you can also download these programs directly from Chessbase itself:  Deep Fritz 14 is about $80, Houdini 4 Standard is $90 or so, and Houdini 4 Pro is $115.

Note that the author of Houdini also sells the Houdini engine (without a GUI) on his website.  I’ll talk more about the pros and cons of each engine in Part II of this Buying Guide.