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John Watson Book Review (42)

Chess CDs: Coming of Age?

Chess CDs: Coming of Age?

  1. Chess Informant 81 on CD, with ECO Vol A; Chess Informant 2001
    The Ultimate Tarrasch Defense; Eric Schiller; Pickard & Son 2001
    World Champion Alekhine; Robert Huebner; ChessBase 2001
    Secrets of the English Chess School; Daniel King; ChessBase 2001
    Queen's Gambit with 5.Bf4; Rustem Dautov; Chess Base 2001
    Opening Encyclopaedia 2002; ChessBase 2001
    Junior 7.0 [& deep Junior 7.0, & Pocket Fritz]; ChessBase 2001
    New In Chess Yearbook 60; New in Chess 2001
    Chess Authors' Database (ChessBase format); Bill Haines; Pickard & Son 2001
    Morphy's Games of Chess (e-book); Philip Sergeant,
    by Tim Sawyer; Pickard & Son 2001
    ( to order)

Before moving on to my subject, I want to touch upon the subject of email sent to me stemming from the address given in this column. Unfortunately, I simply don't have the time to answer all of your questions about what to read, which openings to play, how to study, the availability of lessons, where to purchase books, or which book is best for, e.g., learning tactics, understanding the ideas behind the openings, playing the Dragon, etc! So I would like to request that you refrain from emailing me unless you think that you have something to contribute with respect to the books and authors under consideration, or of course if you are a friend with whom I am already exchanging messages. Disagreements with what I've said, input about my factual errors, further information about books, and analysis of variations are examples of emails that I will consider answering; anything else risks a non-response. I regret this change; the emails I have gotten have usually been friendly and polite, and I have always done my best to answer every one. It has just become too time-consuming to do so.

Electronic chess books in the form of CDs have been steadily increasing in quality. For some time, despite the promises of an e-book revolution, most such books have been hard to navigate, poorly written, less useful than the standard books, and/or, surprisingly, way too short (excluding the lists of unannotated games dumped in from a standard database). By contrast, the electronic magazines that I have seen—meaning ChessBase Magazine, New In Chess, and now the Chess Informants, have been more sophisticated. Recently some (but not all) of the e-books are beginning to look like more substantial products that can compete with hardcopy books in content. This hasn't yet occurred because, in my opinion, the authors are still too lazy (or unmotivated) to use the percentage of that wonderful disk capacity necessary to write a serious work with enough material to rival that of a traditional book. It's fine to fill your CD with videos and photographs; after all, that's one attractive feature of the medium. But the material most chessplayers would consider essential consists of lengthy chapters of information, examples and extensive explanation. Taking the case of an opening book, for example, one expects a systematic listing of the theoretical lines and not just a few comments and links to games-surely most readers want the theory in one place and well-annotated games elsewhere.

Strange to say, the products listed above represent just a fraction of the output of chess CDs since I last discussed them. I have chosen them pretty much on the basis of what interested me. In every case, I have at least installed, opened and browsed through the product. For a couple of these CDs, nevertheless, I have only given a few impressions and I apologize for my superficiality. At least the following reviews will serve to indicate what's out there. Hopefully I will be able to offer useful information as well.

I have reviewed Chess Informants previously in this column. #81 has all of the usual outstanding features, most prominently over 900 games, many of them annotated by the world's leading grandmasters (19 of the top 25 players in the world!). I also mentioned my appreciation of the convenience of the Chess Informant Reader, which makes it much easier to locate and play through games than leafing through a hardcopy. The good news is that there are two improved readers out: versions 2.0 (free) and 2+ (inexpensive). 2+ has several new features but for me, the exciting part is the PGN Reader, which allows me to merge PGN versions of Informant games with other database programs like ChessBase. Upon seeing this, I immediately went and purchased the new Informant 76-80 CD set with PGN conversion. The Informant people also have ECO A-E on CD, as well as their specialised opening monographs.

At the risk of being controversial, it seem to me that Eric Schiller's 'Ultimate Tarrasch Defense' CD shows more effort than any of the other opening CDs out there, perhaps excepting some very specialized works on non-mainstream openings like Dan Heisman's Traxler CD (discussed in an earlier review). It should certainly satisfy readers who are looking to learn about or increase their ability to play the Tarrasch Defense to the Queen's Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 or 3.Nf3 c5).

The material is in ChessBase format, but also includes ACCESS and Bookup files. The approach is very broad: there are several introductory articles by Schiller and Pickard about Tarrasch and history, and a lengthy article by Lilienthal giving a thorough analysis of the relevant Petrosian-Spassky World Ch match games which featured the Tarrasch. Then, for the student, there are sections on typical tactics and blunders as well as recurring maneuvers. The core of the CD is organized rather like the standard ChessBase opening CDs (such as Dautov's below). There is an overview of the opening's variations with links to the annotated games relating to that variation. Schiller gives us 307 of these annotated games, some of them very thoroughly discussed and analysed; thus there are more than just merged games and perhaps a few words, which has been the wont with some of these opening CDs. The author draws upon years of experience with the Tarrasch Defense (including at least two books) to explain the ideas with clarity; this is the opening with which he is most conversant, and it shows. Crucially, he has provided a great deal of new analysis and many suggestions to supplement established theory. I only looked at two of my old favorite lines against the Tarrasch, but I found the existing notes by top players expanded upon with Schiller giving very reasonable alternatives and analysis. Most of this was from Black's point of view, and should of course be approached with skepticism, but that is always the case. Nor does Schiller consider only main lines. He has a lot of original material on lines like the Schara Gambit, early dxc5 variants, and variations in which White foregoes or delays Nc3.

This is clearly a work that has required time and thought to complete. Schiller takes a lot of heat for his bad books; he should in turn be applauded when he produces such a fine effort.

ChessBase continues to be the leader in CD chess products. Here I look briefly at 5 new examples, 3 of which I like very much, one which depends entirely upon the audience, and one which has some redeeming features, but its most important segment is in my opinion a 'pile of crap' (with a nod towards Tony Miles).

This last is Robert Huebner's 'World Champion Alekhine'. The redeeming features have to do with its biographical and historical essays. These can be informative; the one that struck me as truly unique was a review of Alekhine's tournaments, including crosstables. The photographs in this section were the real treat; they are numerous and span his career, including looks at many well-known opponents.

Unfortunately, the CD features an 'analysis' of Alekhine's play and of his writings. All you have to do is read the 'Table of Contents' (a sort of summary of 23 Alekhine games) to see how harshly and negatively Huebner assesses both. For the record, I also looked carefully at several of the heavily-annotated games, which are in the same unimaginative spirit but more boring.

Anyway, in Huebner's view of the world, Alekhine had terrible weaknesses in every single aspect of the game, including technical and psychological ones. Here's his entire summary of Alekhine's play and annotation in Game#2: 'Ruining the pawn structure-materialism; underestimating the active counterplay of the opponent-strategic deficiencies in the opening; bad positional judgment-defensive possibilities of the opponent are not exhaustively scrutinized -lack of criticism towards the own conduct of the attack.' [apparently Huebner the linguist didn't check the English translation for grammatical errors, which are frequent; I've corrected some of the spelling].

Or Game#6: 'Overestimating the initiative, underestimating defensive possibilities; this brings about a wrong picture of the course of the game-self-propaganda-lack of criticism towards the own play-materialism-lack of immersion in concrete, tactical defensive possibilities-strategical deficiencies-harmful brilliance-lack of positional judgement and lack of the will to thorough research in the endgame, maybe due to a fear of unpleasant discoveries.'

Needless to say, Alekhine won both of these games in very nice style.

Many of these 23 analyses are distorted in a negative direction, apparently by Huebner's egotistical point of view. In the very first example (#1), he gives a one-move snippet from a game Alekhine-Romanovsky, St Petersburg 1909. Alekhine gets a '?' for that move, a pawn sacrifice, and Huebner launches into a typically extended analysis of his own suggested alternative, after which he has Black playing provocatively and eventually coming out clearly worse (one analysis goes for 18 moves). Huebner concludes: 'Alekhine's optimism in regard to his attacking chances is really amazing. Throughout his life he did not lose such an excessive faith in his own tactical opportunities.'

But two moves into the analysis, Huebner ignores several attractive (and I think good) alternatives if Black doesn't play so riskily, blithely providing only a single line in which Black commits suicide. Alekhine's move, moreover, is extremely creative, if eventually proven to be bad; one would never know that in the full game (annotated in the database and not even given a link!), it takes a very difficult sequence to ultimately turn the game against him.

Regarding Alekhine's annotations, one might do well to remember that he was first and foremost a player. Although he enjoyed writing about chess and improved his play thereby, I'm sure that the sort of obsessive immersion that would have been required to match the grindings of Fritz, with psychoanalytic sessions on the side, would not have benefited either his health or his play. His writings do, however, reflect the imaginative nature of the struggle, which is why so many generations have enjoyed them.

A few more snippets about Alekhine from Huebner (sorry, but this is sort of fun): 'gross tactical inaccuracy during liquidation-sloppy calculation-underestimating the defence', 'strategical misjudgments; overestimating the own possibilities (blatantly)-a lot of mistakes in detail-bad technique in a won position', ' strategical deficiencies of the highest order in the opening and in the middlegame', 'lack of strategical understanding-ruining the own pawn structure-inappropriate play for the attack; impatience-premature breakdown', ' playing for traps; addiction to combinations-lack of interest and feeling for positional subtleties; impatience-destruction of the own pawn structure-overestimating the initiative-lack of precision in calculating variations-tirelessness-unperturbed by changes of fortune', ' -sloppiness-chess blindness.'

Again, the above quotes refer mostly to victories, e.g., over Nimzowitsch, Bernstein, and Mieses. A funny question to ponder is whether Alekhine's rating would have gone up or down after thorough tutoring by Huebner-my guess is the latter. Certainly down if one believes in positive feedback: In the 23 games considered in this 'Table of Contents', I count only 4 or perhaps 5 positive comments, 3 of them in one sentence!

Then we have the usual Huebner analysis that drives everyone away from his work: it seems that he's always buried in some detail so many moves and subvariations away from the original game that Kasparov himself might have trouble remembering where he was; and remarkably, the simple moves are often neglected. I'm sure that Huebner gets some sort of personal satisfaction from using untold hours (and presumably his computer) to denigrate Alekhine's play. To me, however, all this huffing and puffing reeks of snobbery and narrow-mindedness. Perhaps if it weren't so easy to do this kind of analysis and criticism, I might at least admire the 'scholarly' aspects of this work. But I'm sure that I could write the same boring critique of Huebner's own games and character (duplicating the tone would be difficult) if I wouldn't feel cheap by doing so.

To conclude, someone else may find this a brilliant, objective criticism of a World Champion's play. I myself think that Huebner's work in 'World Champion Alekhine' is unimaginative and narrow-minded. Those interested in photographs and historical information might want to give it a try.

On a lighter note, I can highly recommend GM Daniel King's 'Secrets of the English Chess School'. This is a collection of 29 articles from his 'Strategy' column in ChessBase Magazine (a column that is now written brilliantly by GM Peter Wells and is yet another reason to get ChessBase Magazine). The articles are broken into 8 categories such as 'the King', 'Minor Pieces', 'Pawns', 'Attack', etc. Within the articles are instructive games with (normally) only mild analysis, but many diagrams and thorough commentary; at the end, he places links to the illustrated games and similarly instructive ones. What really sold me on these articles, apart from King's obvious enthusiasm, is the depth to which King pursues his subject. Under 'the King', for example, he has an article on opposite-side castling. After 2 or 3 complex examples from the Sicilian Defence, he could easily wrap it up, but instead presents 13 well-commented games. Not all the articles are this deep, of course, yet they are presented with lively examples and humour. Players ranging from the average club player to about 2200 will likely get more from these articles than from most books on strategy, if only because they'll stay wake.

Dautov's book 'Queen's Gambit 5.Bf4' (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bf4) is another in the ChessBase opening series, which is improving all the time. Dautov covers the theory in 12 Parts with links to a total of 255 commented games. I am still awaiting the CD that lists all the variations in tree style as well as with such broad categories and then links, but the extent of the coverage here is unarguable. There are not so many suggestions or new ideas as in similar products such as Schiller's; however, one must remember that the theory of this extremely popular line has been well worked out and thoroughly tested such that there is an example to quote for just about every plausible alternative. One may recall, for example, the huge book by Colin Crouch on this subject reviewed previously in this column. The theory has developed since that time, and both Dautov's assessments and his feeling for which lines are critical improve upon that work. Just about anyone who plays or intends to play 5.Bf4 will benefit from this CD.

I have talked about ChessBase's Opening Encyclopedia before. This new edition contains 3200 opening surveys, with at least one for every ECO code. You get a database of 1.1 million games, more than 60,000 of them annotated. So this is a kind of Megabase (ChessBase's largest database) with fewer games but with all of the surveys organized right at the beginning by ECO code. I'm not going to say much here. Certainly if you don't have a large database, or one without any annotated games, this is a very attractive way to get started. From my point of view, too many of the surveys are just merged games (in some cases with a comment or two), something that I can easily do myself. Furthermore, there are quite a few surveys that are out of date. Something similar can be said for most of the annotated games, which tend to be either merged games or a game with a small number of non-verbal lines and assessments. On the other hand, when a game is annotated thoroughly (and with commentary) it often is done by a top-level player, including some nice ones by Kasparov. So the games with notes are definitely useful; it's just that there are many fewer with real content than is implied by the 60,000 number. Conclusion? Wonderful for those who are starting out with ChessBase and those who want some systematically organized material with convenient access. Others may want to consider Megabase or some other database instead.

Junior 7.0 is one of many playing programs put out by ChessBase. I like this one best of the recent lot, and use Junior in conjunction with HiArcs (the latter for positional play). Junior has all the usual options of playing conditions, a very strong engine, and extras like analyzing a game in words (and moves) for your benefit, or checking for blunders or bad moves. The latter might be a fun way to check all of your games (or repertoire files). One also gets a large new opening book put together by GM Boris Alterman. The Junior 7.0 engine, like all the others, can be linked with ChessBase to do analysis as one plays through any game. All of these features are standard in ChessBase playing programs, which shows how spoiled we've become. Junior itself has won two of the tournaments with the leading microprocessors. If you're looking for a playing program, you can't go wrong with this one, or for that matter with any of the recently upgraded programs such as Shredder or Fritz. New specialty products include the very powerful Deep Junior (for multiprocessor computers) and 'Pocket Fritz' for pocket PCs with Windows CE.

The main thing I'd like to say about the electronic version of New In Chess Yearbook 60 (the contents of these Yearbooks I have discussed earlier) concerns the NIC ROM Series software. As I mentioned in an earlier review, this software is improving with every iteration. For one thing, you can resize windows, which is a great help. A new feature is that the program works directly with Rebel (an analysis engine such as ChessBase uses in its products), which is provided with each Yearbook CD. The Yearbook contents are quite easy to jump around in. Opening surveys are still the heart of the Yearbook (the CD version comes with all the older surveys relevant to the one under consideration). But I also get a kick out of The Forum, a section in which remarkable discoveries and strange moves are discussed.

I haven't explored Bill Haines' 'Chess Authors' Database'. I will nevertheless include it here because for years I have seen the author at tournaments working away at this material for hours on end. The database includes 1.6 million games but the key idea, implicit in the name 'Authors Database', is that Haines has spent these thousands of hours 'verifying data, screening games, and cleaning up 'header' information.' Thus someone exporting these games to a book or using them in any other way are more likely to avoid the countless informational errors that have crept into databases. This project should also constitute an improvement for chess historians, who are notoriously dissatisfied with the accuracy of database information. Regarding the completeness of the database, Haines admits that he has 1.4 million more games to process for the next edition(!), which unfortunately leaves gaps in his coverage. This CD is definitely worth looking into for those who wish for a 'cleaner' database.

Finally, I will just mention another Pickard product, available by download over the web: the digital version of 'Morphy's Games of Chess' by Philip Sergeant, a book many of us grew up with. The editor Tim Sawyer has added a lot of games and cleaned up some of the errors in the older book.

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