Tag Archives: Tim Harding

Capturing Attention

This review has been printed in the May 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.

Correspondence Database 2020 – $199.95 new. Downloadable.

UltraCorr2020v2 – 55 euros. Downloadable.

Fernschach 2020. 15 euros mailed outside of Germany; 13.50 euros inside Germany. http://www.fernschachbund.de/fernschach-cd/index.html

Correspondence chess is taking on a new relevance in modern chess, and not just because it can be played during a pandemic.

Because most organizations allow players to make use of all resources in move generation, including computers, games at the upper echelons of correspondence chess are fantastically rich, melding high-powered silicon power with human guidance to create some astounding games.[1]

Top level players are taking notice. Attentive readers will note the increasing reference to correspondence games in game annotations, and it’s clear that the elite players are mining correspondence games for opening ideas. GM Erwin l’Ami, second to GM Anish Giri, has a column in the New in Chess Yearbook where he shows new and interesting ideas from correspondence play, and recently he has taken up the mantle himself, playing games through the International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF).

l’Ami is not the only Grandmaster to try his hand at correspondence chess. GM Ulf Andersson had a brilliant, if brief, dalliance with the form, and now GM Krishnan Sasikiran is perhaps the most active correspondence player among over-the-board GMs. I had intended to show you a crushing win by Sasikiran (Jaulneau-Sasikiran, ICCF 2014) on the Black side of a King’s Indian here, but l’Ami has annotated an even more amazing Sasikiran game in the newest (#134) New in Chess Yearbook.

Wieland Belka (2500)
Krishnan Sasikiran (2550)
corr ICCF, 31.03.2019

1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Bc4 Nf6 5. e5 d5 6. Bb5 Ne4 7. Nxd4 Bd7 8. Bxc6 bxc6 9. 0–0 Bc5 10. f3 Ng5 11. Be3 0–0 12. f4 f6!?

12… Ne4 is the main line here, while 12. … Ne6 is a playable alternative. Sasikiran’s move is not a novelty, as l’Ami seems to imply. Still, he has worked out a fascinating new concept in this very well-known opening.

13. exf6

  1. fxg5? fxe5 14. Nf5 d4 gives Black back the material with interest, as l’Ami points out.

13… Nh3+!

The key point. 13. … Ne4 14. fxg7 Re8 was tried in Dostal-Efimov (ICCF 2015) but Sasikiran improves on this dramatically.

14. gxh3 Bxh3

l’Ami says that Black has full compensation here; for the details, check out his notes in Yearbook 134. The game concluded:

15. b4 Bb6 16. Rf3 Bg4 17. fxg7 Re8 18. Bf2 Qf6 19. c3 Qg6 20. Kh1 Bxd4 21. cxd4 Qh5 22. Nd2 Re4 23. Kg2 Rxf4 24. Bg3 Rxd4 25. Kg1 Bxf3 26. Qxf3 Qxf3 27. Nxf3 Rxb4 ½–½

It is not easy for the non-initiate to find correspondence games to study, although (as we will see) the data is out there if you know where to look. Much simpler is the use of a commercial correspondence database, and this month, we’ll take a serious look at two such products and mention a third in passing.

The ChessBase Correspondence Database 2020 (Corr 2020) contains 1,626,801 games, 5,674 of which are annotated. Author and correspondence Senior IM Tim Harding’s UltraCorr 2020 is a long running alternative to ChessBase’s database, with this year’s edition coming in at 2,150,356 games, 37,048 of which are annotated.

Two sets of numbers stand out here: the number of games / annotated games in each database, and their respective prices. Corr 2020 has fewer games for more money, while UltraCorr is less expensive but includes vastly more games. But numbers don’t always tell the full story, and for me, the differences between Corr 2020 and Ultracorr are rooted in the types of products each tries to be.

Corr 2020 is a typical ChessBase product. The data is very clean and standardized, and it benefits from its publisher’s relationship with top players. The unused Sasikiran game mentioned above – Jaulneau-Sasikiran – is annotated by the player in Corr 2020, and the database is accompanied by a set of fourteen videos from from some of ChessBase’s stable of authors, all of which deal with games from correspondence play.

UltraCorr is much more of a one-man job. Harding has done excellent work in scouring the web for games, giving his database over 500,000 more games than are found in Corr 2020, but not all of the games are of good quality, and there is less standardization of names and events. Some over-the-board games have even crept in.

UltraCorr’s nearly sevenfold advantage annotated games over Corr 2020 is also something of a mixed bag, Harding has obviously spent a lot of time collecting and inputting annotations, and UltraCorr contains nearly all of the notes that appeared in the nine year run of Harding’s well-regarded Chess Mail magazine. But more than two thousand of the annotations in UltraCorr are “anno-Fritzed,” automatically annotated by ancient versions of Fritz and Junior, and still more are annotated in name only.

Both Corr 2020 and UltraCorr 2020 are designed to be comprehensive historical documents, covering the earliest correspondence games on record along with World Championships, Olympiads, etc. Both have a tremendous number of recent games as well. So how does one choose between them?

UltraCorr is certainly the best “bang for the buck,” with more games and (legitimate) annotations for less money. But there is something to be said for the well-curated data in Corr 2020 as well. When I built my own research database from earlier incarnations of these two sources some months ago, I used Corr 2018 as the basis for the new “Frankencorr,” and then “cannibalized” games from UltraCorr 2019 to build it out. My reason for doing so was to try to retain as much of Corr 2018’s clean data – names and tournaments – as possible.

Corr 2020 and UltraCorr 2020 are both fine products, each with their own selling points and drawbacks. Just to complicate things further, let me briefly mention a third option. Herbert Bellmann, a German Senior IM in correspondence, is the publisher of Fernschach 2020. It’s my sense that Bellmann is not trying to compete with either ChessBase or Harding with this product; rather, this is more or less Bellmann’s own private database for sale, something that can be seen in the data itself.

Fernschach 2020 contains 1,513,390 games, with annotations to 12,655 of them. That last number is, as with UltraCorr 2020, somewhat misleading. Many of the games listed as annotated lack notes, but more than 1500 are annotated by Bellmann himself. The database does not try to be historically comprehensive – the first game is from 1978! – and instead appears to focus intensely on German correspondence events. For that reason it may be a valuable resource for the chess researcher, particularly given its modest price.

Fernschach 2020 was published in October 2019, while Corr 2020 appeared in November 2019 and the final edition of UltraCorr 2020 was released in February 2020. This gives us an indication of how up to date each product is, although again, the dates alone can be misleading. Case in point: the Belka-Sasikiran game given above appears in both Fernschach and UltraCorr, but not Corr 2020, even though Corr 2020 appeared after Fernschach.

None of the three databases discussed in this month’s column include updates, which are especially important for those users looking for new opening ideas in correspondence play. This can be overcome with a bit of work on the part of end users.

The great majority of important correspondence games are played through the ICCF. Those with accounts at iccf.com (it’s free to sign up) can download new game files at the beginning of each month, and the frugal among us could even create a fairly substantial correspondence database just by downloading and collating all of the games at ICCF.

Other important correspondence sites and sources of games are:

It is sufficient to simply merge .pgn files from these sites into one’s database of choice. Perfectionists will want to process those files to remove diacritical marks and hyphens from names, as Bellmann, ChessBase, and Harding all do, in the interest of standardization. For this, I can recommend either the Text Mechanic website[2] or a combination of Notepad++ and “Python Script”[3] as effective tools. Trying to edit all the games manually in ChessBase is also possible, but it is difficult and time consuming.


A personal note before we go: this is my last review column for Chess Life, as I will be taking over editorial duties come June 1st. Thanks to Dan Lucas and Melinda Matthews for giving me page space each month to try and do real criticism, something that is a bit of a rarity in today’s publishing world. While I suspect that readers will not have agreed with all of my judgments, I trust that the seriousness and honesty I’ve tried to bring to the page came through.

I’m thrilled that my dear friend and mentor IM John Watson will be taking over review duties for Chess Life next month. For me, John is the best reviewer in the business, and I can’t wait to see what he has to say.

[1] Note that events run by US Chess do not permit computer use, so if you have a competitive itch you need to scratch and you don’t want Stockfish’s help, this might be worth investigating!

[2] http://textmechanic.com/text-tools/basic-text-tools/remove-letter-accents/

[3] https://superuser.com/questions/484141/replacing-all-special-accented-characters-with-equivalent-regular-characters-in


Biographies from McFarland

This review has been printed in the April 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.


Davies, Stephen. Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786495962. HB 408pp. List $65.00.

Harding, Tim. Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786474738. HB 592pp. List $75.00.

Sanchez, Miguel A. José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786470044. HB 277pp. List $55.00.

Zavatarelli, Fabrizio. Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. ISBN 978-0786496907. HB 376pp. List $75.00

Most of the biggest publishing houses leave chess to their smaller brethren, with a few notable exceptions. Batsford and its valuable backlist have changed hands a few times, now resting with Pavilion Books out of London. The US Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess was for many years published by McKay, and is now in its 6th edition with McKay’s successor, Random House.

There is an American house that is publishing some very interesting studies of chess history as part of its wide and varied list, and chances are, unless you work in the industry, that you’ve never heard of them.

Until now, that is.

McFarland & Company is an independent publisher from North Carolina. Focused on the library market, they specialize in fields like military history, baseball and popular culture. Somewhere along the way they added chess to their purview, and today McFarland puts out more scholarly chess books than any other publisher.

Some of these titles – compilations of hard-to-find crosstables, bibliographies, etc. – are of limited popular interest, but the biographical works have potential cross-over appeal. I gave the 2014 McFarland release of Andy Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion a favorable review in these pages (May 2014), and the book went on to win the Book of the Year prize awarded by the Chess Journalists of America.

Four McFarland chess biographies have crossed my desk in recent months. Two – Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career by Fabrizio Zavatarelli and Samuel Lipschütz: A Life in Chess by Stephen Davies – are first rate works on fine but lesser-known players. Zavatarelli’s book in particular is worth a look. The tale of Kolisch’s rise to fame and fortune, made possible in part through his chess contacts, is dramatically told.

Of possibly greater interest are the titles on José Raúl Capablanca and Joseph Henry Blackburne. The legendary Capablanca was the third official world champion, holding the title from 1921-1927, and Blackburne was one of the top tournament players of the later nineteenth century. Both books bear an identical subtitle – “A Chess Biography” – but as we shall see, it reads rather differently depending on the author.

In José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography, Miguel A. Sanchez paints his portrait of Capablanca against a broad backdrop of time and country, economy and politics. The first chapter, for example, describes the history of Cuban chess, showing how the sugar boom allowed aficionados to bring players like Morphy, Steinitz, Blackburne and Chigorin to the island. It also gives face and personality to many of Capablanca’s early supporters and rivals.

There is much that is familiar in Sanchez’s account. The general outlines of Capablanca’s life are well known and there are no shocking revelations to be found here. Still, I suspect that even the most ardent Capa fan will learn something new from Sanchez’s very readable book. Of particular, if morbid, interest is the discussion of Capablanca’s high blood pressure and health problems, the deleterious effects of which Sanchez locates much earlier in Capablanca’s career than commonly thought.

There are 192 competently annotated games in José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography. Because Sanchez emphasizes biography over chess, contextualizing Capablanca’s chess career within his life more broadly, this number feels appropriate. Contrast it with the 1184 games and 55 compositions in Tim Harding’s Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography, and you begin to get a sense of a stark difference in authorial attitude towards the biographical task.

Blackburne was the best British player before the rise of Miles, Short and Adams in the late twentieth century. He was a great popularizer of the game and one of its first professionals, making annual exhibition tours through the ‘provinces’ for nearly sixty years (1861-1921) and specializing in simultaneous blindfold exhibitions for fifty of them.

Most of Harding’s work has gone into excavating the details of Blackburne’s chess career. He has recovered unknown games, corrected errors in published games, and created detailed travelogues for his tours and travels. Many details of his family life are documented and dozens of pictures are provided, but make no mistake – this is a chess biography.

Harding’s book feels definitive. Of course new material will continue to be discovered, but so much work went into its writing, so much material is presented, that it almost overwhelms the general reader. Historians will find Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography to be an indispensable resource, but casual fans may want to start with the chapter on Blackburne in Harding’s more approachable Eminent Victorian Chess Players.