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John Watson Book Review (16)

Stories, Training, and Data

The Human Comedy of Chess; Hans Ree; 334 pages; Russell Enterprises, 1999; $24.95

Basic Principles of Chess Strategy, Volume 1; software on CD, Aleksey Bartashnikov; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

1000x Checkmate; software on CD, Lubomir Ftacnik; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

Opening Encyclopedia; software on CD, various authors; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

Chess Informant 75; 346 pages; Sahovski Informator, 1999

The Human Comedy of Chess; Hans Ree; 334 pages; Russell Enterprises, 1999; $24.95

Basic Principles of Chess Strategy, Volume 1; software on CD, Aleksey Bartashnikov; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

1000x Checkmate; software on CD, Lubomir Ftacnik; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

Opening Encyclopedia; software on CD, various authors; ChessBase GmbH, 1999

Chess Informant 75; 346 pages; Sahovski Informator, 1999

First, my sincere thanks to the many TWIC readers who wrote encouraging notes to me after my stroke this May. It meant a lot to me to hear from you, and I was amazed at how many people took the extra trouble to respond to my situation. Thank you.

At present, I have limited ability to travel, which will impact upon these reviews, in that my library and many of the new books and CDs I was sent are buried in storage in another city! Eventually, I expect to be able to travel again and sort things out, but in the meantime, I want to express my regret to the publishers whose material will not be reviewed until I do so. In particular, I should mention both New In Chess and Sahovski Informator, whose CDs and Encyclopedias, respectively, were to have been next on my list to review.

Hans Ree's book The Human Comedy of Chess consists of a series of wonderfully-informative articles which originally appeared in a variety of sources, including two familiar to many TWIC readers: the magazine New In Chess, and the web site Chess Café (; Ree's book can be ordered from this site). The other articles were translated from Dutch publications, and all the material was revised and updated for this edition. This is Ree's first book in English (he has written five chess books in Dutch). For this we owe thanks to Hannon Russell, who has again made a leading chess journalist's work available to a wider public. Russell was also responsible for the publication of the Edward Winter essays featured in my previous review; in both cases, we have an enrichment of the literature which transcends the usual fare of games, theory, and advice.

Ree's main focus is on the chess world of the 1990s. I enjoyed this entire book, including the various historical articles and an entertaining chapter on endings and studies. But the most compelling sections, particularly when taken as a whole, deal with politics and chess at the world-class level. Despite having read many of these articles before, I found Ree's contemporary reports on world championship events, the champions themselves, and the Byzantine machinations and manipulations at various FIDE congresses to be as enthralling and perceptive as ever. Perhaps that is in part because I found myself agreeing with him so much of the time. Ree is more-or-less equally critical of Kasparov and Karpov, and perfectly willing to portray them as inconsistent, greedy, paranoid, and egocentric, but he does so by sticking to facts and public statements, never being so foolish as to denigrate their chess abilities, nor even the beauty of their play. That might seem easy enough to do, but other critics have consistently tried to combine their own personal dislike of one or both of these champions with a criticism of their play, charging Karpov with winning fixed games and having weak opponents, for example, or Kasparov of winning only due to his preparation and help from computers and assistants; or, most absurdly, charging them both with collusion to fix the results of their matches. Fortunately, Ree is himself a grandmaster, and a lover of chess, and even when he is willing to believe that various rumours and conspiracies are plausible, he never lapses into the kind of madness that stems from personal dislike alone. The one exception to Ree's healthily-skeptical approach appears in his treatment of Ilyumzhinov, the FIDE president. In the latter's case, rumours seem to be accorded factual status, and Ree goes overboard in his characterizations, ignoring context. Of course, Ilyumzhinov is an extremely mysterious character and I wouldn't be surprised if we come to find out that some of the accusations against him are true. It's just that Ree uncharacteristically mixes fact (which can be damning enough) with speculation; and, to my mind, he fails to identify the latter clearly enough. Overall, however, Ree's balance is a strong point throughout, and this is the best writing on contemporary chess politics I have seen.

The chapters of this book are entitled 'World Champions', 'Politics', 'In Memoriam', History', 'The Endgame', 'Matches and Tournaments', and 'Miscellanea'. They are all worth reading; I particularly recommend the 'In Memoriam' chapter; it includes among other essays a wonderful tribute to his friend Donner and a shrewd yet respectful characterization of Botvinnik. Ree is that rare case of a strong player who is well-educated, intelligent, able to write well, and dedicated to his craft. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers of all strengths.

Looking over my old reviews in this column, I realized that I have never even mentioned two of the most important companies in the chess-information field. One of these is the German firm ChessBase, maker of the most popular database program 'ChessBase', which is used by most of the world's leading players. This database is supplemented by the analytical module 'Fritz', which you will often see referred to in masters' annotations. I am not reviewing database or playing programs here; but I thought I'd mention some recent CD-ROMs that ChessBase has put out.

Two of these come packaged with a limited version of the database program called 'ChessBase Reader', and thus allow the purchaser to use the product without needing to own ChessBase itself. Both are aimed at a 'post-beginner' audience. As Aleksey Bartashnikov says in the introduction to his CD 'Basic Chess Strategy', his course is intended "for those who are already well-acquainted with the rules of the game, have some practical chess experience, and now would like to study the basics of chess strategy." Ftacnik's '1000xCheckmate', similarly, emphasizes elementary mates and mating motifs, including even mates in 1, to inculcate the post-beginning player with essential pattern recognition and mating skills. I seldom deal with chess material on this level, but a number of readers has specifically asked about instructional software of this sort.

Bartashnikov's is a 3-CD set, of which Volume 1 first discusses the opening in terms of centre, pawns, development and king safety. He begins his treatment of the middlegame with positional evaluation and pawn treatment (including, e.g., connected, backward, doubled, and isolated pawns). Concepts are introduced by means of 'texts', illustrated by 68 thoroughly-annotated games, and exercised by numerous 'tests'. I think it's fair to say that this course contains almost precisely what any introductory book on strategy contains; the difference is mainly in the quick access to the information.

Ftacnik's CD contains 1000 mates from actual games classified by number of moves, the pieces involved, and 15 themes (queen sacrifice, back rank, quiet moves, etc.). Each mate can be used in 'training' mode, to test the student, complete with a running clock and points awarded according to difficulty. Thus this CD is similar to a collection of mates in a book, but with a few extra testing features.

In both cases, the question arises: who would benefit from using this software approach to elementary chess trainingÿ I think that a great many students in school chess programs or adults who are just developing beyond a beginner's level might prefer such a program to a book with similar material, due to its ease of use, visual feedback, and testing capabilities. Certainly kids who are used to learning on computers should feel at home with these products.

For more advanced players, ChessBase publishes the well-known electronic magazine 'ChessBase Magazine'. This appears on a CD which includes a collection of recent games, many annotated by grandmasters, and a variety of other features such as a collection of well-annotated endgames, middlegame training, correspondence games, and multimedia tournament reports with interviews of the world's leading players. For many years, ChessBase Magazine has also included opening surveys, organized and annotated by titled players such as Ftacnik, Knaak, and Ribli. Now they have published a CD-ROM called 'Opening Encyclopedia', which puts together over 3000 of these surveys, old and new, supplemented by a large database of games. The survey material covers most of contemporary theory, although the material is not systematically complete in the way that NCO or the Yugoslavian Encyclopedias are. The idea is that, for those lines which are not explicitly covered by survey games, the database of 475,000 games can be consulted (in ChessBase, games can be located by opening key or by position). One factor that makes this a reasonable solution is that roughly 45,000 of the database games are annotated, sometimes very thoroughly, and themselves contain a good deal of theory. Of course, in contrast to the above training CDs, one must own the ChessBase program to use this material effectively.

I haven't had time to look over a great many variations in the Opening Encyclopedia, but for those I did examine, there was plenty of material to become familiar with the essentials of an opening and its contemporary theory. Be warned that the material is overwhelmingly non-verbal, and that its organization is not as tight as in the 5-volume Encyclopedias put out by the Informant folk. But as far as I know, this is the most thorough attempt at an openings encyclopedia for use with a computer. Those who prefer a mouse and display to a book and board will find this a great first step. It is, for example, a lot more convenient to add notes to games in databases than it is to write all over the margins of your books (although I still do the latter obsessively). Of course, experienced chess database users will be able to find the same or more games by individually searching huge databases for key positions. Still, those games need to be organized and made sense of; by exploiting the work already invested in this CD, the average user will save a lot of time and energy. Just for example, I will definitely cut-and-paste material from this database in the process of organizing more specialized files on openings; if you're comfortable with ChessBase, I think you'll want to do the same.

The other company that has been a mainstay on the professional circuit for some 30+ years is Sahovski Informator, from Yugoslavia. Their flagship publication is Chess Informant, a 'languageless' production whose system of chess symbols and opening classification system have been widely (but not universally) adopted as the standard in chess publications around the world (ChessBase, for example, uses both). Each volume contains FIDE-rated tournament crosstables, a set of combinations and endings to solve, and annotated games for the best game and best novelty of the previous volume. The bulk of the material, however, and what makes the Informant essential reading for practically all of the world's chess professionals, is the game section (302 of volume 75's 346 pages, with 537 main games). What sets Informant apart is its list of top-flight annotators. In volume 75, for example, Kasparov annotates 13 games, Kramnik 10, Anand 6, Shirov 8, Adams 16, Gelfland 7, Ivanchuk 13, Leko 10, and so forth. Suffice it to say that anyone writing a book on theory will inevitably consult a set of Informants (they exist electronically as well) and use it as one of their most important sources.

Informants 74 and 75 were produced during the war in the midst of 'air strikes, air-raid warnings, and frequent power cuts'. Remarkably, there is no discernible loss of quality, and the inclusion of the super-tournaments in Linares, Sarajevo, and dos Hermanas (Category 20, 19, and 18, respectively) make volume 75 a gold mine of top-level games and notes. Many players find Informants so comprehensive that they keep up on theory using little else; that should give an indication of how thorough and relevant they are.

For whom Chess Informant is best suitedÿ I am not the best judge of such things; to my mind, anyone should be able to benefit from top-level contemporary games and notes. But it is also true that none of the annotations are verbal, and most games contain not a single diagram. This has the advantage of cramming as much possible chess information into each volume, but the disadvantage of intimidating average players. Thus, Informant will for the most part remain an active tournament player's choice, and developing players will probably prefer books and magazines with a more casual presentation. In any case, the chess world is lucky to have a resource of such consistently high quality and reliability.

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