John Watson Book Review (86)
The Big Three and Then Some
IM John Watson - Friday 4th January 2008
Chess Informant 99; 340 pages; Sahovski Informator 2007
New in Chess Yearbook 84; 244 pages; New In Chess 2007
ChessBase Magazine 120; DVD; ChessBase 2007
ChessToday; Alex Baburin; pay email service
ChessPublishing; Tony Kosten, sitemaster; pay website
Once in a while I should step back from individual books and CDs to take a look at the regular publications which form the practical core of most professional player's chess study. Outside of magazines and websites (about which more later), the first which naturally come to mind are the 'Big Three', i.e., Chess Informant, New in Chess Yearbook, and ChessBase Magazine. All three have been around for a long time and show no sign of losing momentum. I would say that most masters and those at a higher level use at least one of these, although it should be kept in mind that there are up-to-date games and annotations on pay services, two of which I review below.
Chess Informant is a good place to start, not only because it is the granddaddy of the theoretical revolution in chess, but because it is just publishing its 100th issue. To show you what that means, and gain some perspective on how consistent this publication has been, consider that the first Informant appeared in January 1966, and it has come out without real interruption ever since (political crises and economic problems notwithstanding). In fact, there is now available a disc of '100,093 fully annotated games' that appeared in the time between these first 99 issues. I'm not sure how this count is arrived at, but 'annotated' is the key word: previous to this, annotated games had been printed in various magazines and tournament books, but side-by-side with many others that were unannotated (perhaps a selection of games from a tournament). The Informant blew away all other publications by printing hundreds of annotated games, a high percentage of them theoretically important, in each issue.
The truly radical difference between Informants and what came before them (or what exists now) has been in the strength of the contributors. Over the years, I can't think of a single leading grandmaster who hasn't put their games in Informant, usually dozens of times or more. On their website, the publishers list the number of games annotated by World Champions, in parentheses. It's quite a catalogue;
Euwe (1 game), Botvinnik (29), Smyslov (128), Tal (367), Petrosian (509), Spassky (17), Fischer (10), Karpov (576), Kasparov (620), Kramnik (405), Khalifman (209), Anand (453), Ponomariov (136), Kasimdzhanov (111), Topalov (55), Gaprindashvili (61), Chiburdanidze (127), Xie Jun (29), Zs. Polgar (99), Zhu Chen (7), Stefanova (2).
Returning to earth, Chess Informant 99 has 413 main games (some fragments), most of them incredibly densely annotated. Imbedded in them are recent important games relating to the opening, given as fragments or even complete games (there are 500 such in this issue; hence the number of 'games' is in a sense considerably higher than nominally listed). The Informant also comes in CD form, with the contents readable by a unique Chess Reader developed the company. I'll ignore the features that accompany this product for lack of space, but you can download it from their website. After considerable delay, Sahovsky Informator also releases PGN versions of the games. This is one of the drawbacks of the Informant compared to ChessBase Magazine. Data in PGN format is usable by almost all database programs. In particular, ChessBase converts PGN files into its own compatible databases, and its the industry standard.
The Informant, by the way, it is written in a wordless, universally comprehensible system of names, moves, and symbols. This issue's annotators include many of the world's best players such as Adams, Anand, Ivanchuk, Kramnik, Leko, Morozevich, Svidler, and a host of others.
Over the years, the Informant (which now appears 3 times a year) has added many features in addition to the games. Issue 99 includes these: (a) lists of the ten best games from the previous volume and the 10 most important theoretical novelties, both voted on by a panel of 8 grandmasters (you even get to see how each one put together their list!). The winners are shown, and in the case of the theoretical novelty an extensive tree of relevant theory is given (in this case the move was a Morozevich innovation on the 15th move of a Najdorf Sicilian). (b) the famous Informant symbols list (used worldwide) and the equally famous opening classification system which is used by a majority of the world's writers and magazines. (c) after all the games are given we get an Index of Players, with each of their games (or fragments) list by number and colour. (d) an Index of commentators (including the editorial staff, who added information relevant to about 50 games). (e) a section of 18 combinative exercises and annotated solutions. (f) a section of endgame problems and annotated solutions, the endings organised by a Classification Index. (One solution takes up almost an entire page, which in the Informant is a lot of moves!). (g) A smaller section of studies, 9 in this case. (h) A list of major tournaments played during this time period, with results. (i) A tribute to a player; this issue includes 25 pages devoted to Yassar Seirawan with a large selection of his games from Informant, followed by some combinations and endings.
In my day as an active player, no professional player did without his Informant, usually carrying at least one volume to tournaments; most strong non-professionals lived by its word as well. I suspect that the same holds true today; few if any competitive IMs or GMs can play regular opening lines without at least knowing what has been analysed in the Informant, and if you want high-level and often wonderful complete games to study, the Informant will give you all that you can handle.
Let's move on next to New in Chess Yearbook, published by the same folk who produce New in Chess Magazine. I should say that, although I don't see many of the Yearbooks, many players swear by them, and some don't use the Informants at all. That includes a very high-rated friend of mine.
New in Chess Yearbook #84 manages to fit a lot of opening theory into 244 pages. It consists of letters and articles about openings, and almost all of its space is dedicated to that purpose, with the exception of book reviews, which are most welcome in any publication these days.
The first part of the Yearbook is the Forum, a set of letters to the magazine; this is a favourite section for many players. I think that's similar to the fact that I like to read the letters in a book review magazine before reading anything else. Anyway, in the Forum we find submissions from grandmasters and others. Very often they supply a game with notes, and frequently they respond to or expand surveys that have been published in the previous issue. This issue has 11 contributions, generally a page or less, but sometimes more, for example, three of them are about 2 pages long: Palliser on the Slav with 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 dxc4 5 a4 Bf5 6 Ne5 e6 7 f3 c5 8 e4 cxd4 9 exf5 Bb4, Bronznik on the Grünfeld with 4 Bg5, (for example, 5 Bh4 Nxc3 6 bxc3 c5 7 cxd5 Qxd5 8 e3 Bg7 9 Nf3 Nc6 10 Be2 cxd4 11 cxd4 0-0 12 0-0 e5 13 dxe5 Qa5 14 Bf6 Bxf6 15 exf6), and Herbert Nagel on the Alekhine's Defence Four Pawns Attack with 9...c4!?. Forum contributions tend to be accompanied by commentary and perhaps a story.
The next feature is Sosonko’s Corner, which is Genna Sosonko's regular article dealing with assorted topics, for example, opening theory and players, generally surrounded by a discussion of openings. NICY 84 has him musing about the days before computers when he did his detailed analysis of 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 dxc4 5 a4 Bf5 6 e3 e6 7 a5, and checking out what's happened since.
In the body of New In Chess Yearbook #94, there are articles about more than 30 opening variations, so it's likely that several will intersect with your repertoire, more or less proportionally with how much you play. There are eight articles about lines in the Sicilian, three on the French Defence, three on the Ruy Lopez, three on the Queen's Indian, and so forth. Given my work, I'm an exception, but I find that I've either played or studied all but four of them; you might be surprised by how many articles you're interested in. They all have an introduction by the author, and one, two, or in some cases more annotated games, normally used to illustrate the most important idea of the article. The contributors are excellent, usually grandmasters. While there are none of the world's elite GMs represented in this issue, as there are in Informant, the Yearbook's specialists are often more knowledgeable about a theoretical variation than a top-ten player might be. The reason that NICY articles appeal to many opening hounds is that a large number of relevant games are presented to give you a feel for the full extent of theory. This also makes it easy to pick up an opening line that you haven't played before.
I have two difficulties with the Yearbook. One isn't very important: I wish that they'd just give in and start using the ECO/Informant codes as most of the rest of the world does, including the Informant itself, CBM, print magazines, and most other companies' chess publications. Granted, it's not exactly difficult to navigate through NIC material, but the ECO system would be a convenience. The other issue (not criticism) is that the Yearbook isn't published in PGN (i.e., on a CD). This probably has to do with the issue of copying, with which every company struggles. So I don't blame them at all – it's just a wish list item.
As I say, New in Chess Yearbook is not a publication that I get a great deal of exposure to; but when I do, I am always very impressed and read large chunks of it without getting up from my desk.
I've gone on at great length about ChessBase Magazine before, especially in Column #73, so I'll mostly list features of this DVD rather than discuss them at length (all of the games, multimedia, etc., are downloadable onto your computer as ChessBase files) . I should begin by saying, however, that there are supplemental discs to each issue called 'Extra', which come with a subscription. They add a new batch of games to the database, most of which are probably available on TWIC, but also include features such as multimedia tournament reports and interviews. Sometimes the interviews are fairly perfunctory (Fabiano Caruano in CBM Extra #119), other times almost an hour long and fascinating. For example, I loved the video interview with Florencio Campomanes in ChessBase Magazine Extra #113, which was full of all kinds of historically-significant personal accounts. Other interviews of relatively recent vintage have been Elizbar Ubilava (Anand's cohort and trainer for many years) and journalist/writer Alexander Roshal. Of course the World Champions and contenders are regularly interviewed in the Magazine itself, often including one very lengthy multimedia interview of a famous player.
ChessBase Magazine #120 includes an amazing array of features. There are numerous tournament reports, first and foremost, the World Championship tournament won by Anand in Mexico. Mihail Marin writes up the event and discusses openings and new ideas. He and several other grandmasters annotate all of the games, and there are multimedia/video interviews and analyses, for example, Shirov annotates the Aronian-Anand game.
Other tournaments include Mexico, Biel, and Russia vs China, all with full reports. A good example is Carlsbad 2007 (won by Movsesian), with video annotations of games by Movsesian, Shirov, and Krasenkow. Shirov goes over three games from the event in multimedia ('Fritztrainer') mode. From Biel, Radjabov presents a complex King's Indian game with van Wely, and the event report includes has annotated games from van Wely, Radjabov, Onischuk and Carlsen.
The issue has the usual columns/databases: endgames (Karsten Müller), tactics (Oliver Reeh), opening traps (Rainer Knaak), and Daniel King's Move by Move (the middlegame column, normally by Peter Wells is missing, but is a regular feature). One of the most important sections is the 'Telechess' database, in which we find a large database of roughly 2500 correspondence chess games, some annotated, and equally importantly, correspondence tournament reports, ratings, etc.
You also get 12 opening surveys from grandmasters (downloadable with a database) on a wide range of opening variations, for example, lines in the Sicilian Four Knights Defence, the English Defence, Najdorf Sicilian, Benko Gambit, Ruy Lopez, Dutch Defence, and so forth.
ChessBase Magazine is a fantastic publication and, I admit, the one of these three that I spend the most time with. It shows how chess can be presented in an especially appealing way if the creators of a DVD exploit their medium to the fullest.
Which if any of these Big Three publications is right for you? Of course, it may be that you're more interested in reading games collections, books about historical chess figures, the endgame, or the latest opening. That's fine; when I'm not reading books for review, I'm often inclined to stick with lighter material. But assuming that you're an active tournament player who has to face reasonably good opposition, you should try to make room in your budget for at least one of these more sophisticated products. I don't think that I can call one or the other objectively 'best', because they are very different, and a choice comes down to individual preferences.
If you want the most opening theory with the most games by the highest-level annotators, you may prefer Informant; on top of that, some of the most beautiful games that are being played around the world make their way into its pages. These are obviously big-time features, especially for the player mostly interested theoretical information. But there are no words, and words are often what appeals to people and keeps them interested. Be sure to check out the special features in Informant as well - you have, for example, tournament tables, and combinational and endgame training. Informant also comes in electronic format, but isn't available in PGN form until much later.
If you want a range of specialised theory with many games per opening variation and the most detail on any variation, New in Chess Yearbook may serve your purposes best. You always get some verbal discussion by the author of the article, complete with one, two or more deeply annotated games covering details of the variation. It's very likely that you will be interested in several of the main articles which match your repertoire, and possibly many more. The Forum extends the opening coverage with contributions that are almost always topical. There aren't many extra features in NICYB, especially compared to the wide variety in CBM, although neither of the other publications under consideration has book reviews. As a general rule, the more detailed theory that you're involved with, the more you'll want the Yearbook.
Finally, if you're interested in the broadest range of chess news, multimedia, and categories/types of information (annotated games, theory, etc.), you may want to get ChessBase Magazine. It has extremely lengthy multimedia interviews of famous players (usually 1 per issue), complete first-rate tournament reports with top-level annotations, and many shorter interviews with well-known players and/or press conferences with them. Additional multimedia features are tournament reports and game analysis/presentation by players. Personally I like these multimedia presentations very much because of their personal nature as well as their content. Beyond that, Chess Base Magazine comes with database games, training, endgames, correspondence chess, etc. Although CBM has excellent opening surveys, the opening theory hound will likely get more content out of the other two paper publications. Then, too, theirs are not downloadable, at least in the most popular and usable format, whereas ChessBase material can be searched and manipulated, and you do get a database of recent games.
However, you have to seriously consider whether you want to use a computer disk or prefer a book. CBM's electronic format requires you to stare at a screen; the rewards are that you get far more total information, and downloadable databases for all the columns. The negative is that many people are in front of a screen all day in their work, and may prefer a book.
I hope that is a more-or-less fair comparison, although I'm positive that each company will object strenuously to their own characterisation. So please take a look at and/or try out a copy of each, which might involve simply a trip to your chessplaying friend's house. Then you can decide if you want to commit to one or more of them. Remember that each has a large and loyal following, so none of them can be too bad!
Okay a shorter word on two pay services, ChessPublishing and Chess Today. I'm not including the biggest two playing websites Playchess (go to www.playchess.com, to get started) and the Internet Chess Club (ICC; go to www.chessclub.com, to get started), both because it would take too much work (their many features are hard to describe and compare), and because of a conflict of interest. That is, I give weekly Internet Radio interviews on Chess.FM, which is part of ICC. But for the few of you who don't know that playing sites exist, go ahead and take a look at those websites.
Chess Today is a daily publication with the news of the day, exercises, annotated games, and sometimes features such as interviews and book reviews. It comes in an email with three files: (1) a PDF file, which can be read with a free copy of Acrobat Reader, (2) a CBV file. This is a zipped ChessBase database of games, usable in ChessBase of course, but also in Fritz and other playing programs. The ChessBase site has a free Reader which lets you read and manipulate the games in the database; (3) a PGN file, which is a database of games in a format that can be used by almost any database program.
This daily product has been around for over a decade and over 2500 issues, a consistency and durability that is rare in the chess world, to say the least.
A typical Chess Today has 6 pages, which is the usual length, and features a report on yesterday's or even the same day's results from a chess event, complete with one to three annotated games from it, with analysis by Grandmasters or International Masters. The great thing about these annotated games is that they are available in the CBV and PGN files, complete with the notes, and often, the files include a database of every available game from the events being covered.
For more information on Chess Today, including how to get sample issues, visit ChessToday.net.
ChessPublishing.com (or 'ChessPublishing') is another site with a lengthy and stable history, with an astonishing quantity of current and archived material. Let me paraphrase and add to the website description. It divided into 12 sections (or sites), each one run by an expert in that area. Together, the sites are a sort of dynamic book covering all ECO codes (that is, every opening). Already there are literally 1000s of pages of original analysis, with perhaps 100 newly analysed theoretical games a month and 13000+ annotated games in the archives. All 12 sections are updated monthly the latest developments. Since ChessPublishing.com is an Internet publication, the information is always topical and up to date. [I would add that all games in the archive are searchable by ECO code.]
Almost everyone who writes a monthly section is a Grandmaster, excepting myself (an IM) and, I think, just one other columnist. Although the emphasis is on openings, the sections consist of full games, and you will find that they are lessons in and of themselves. Most of the writers that I know use ChessPublishing as a major source in their work, and a very large number of professionals subscribe, although of course the majority of subscribers are regular tournament players hungry for up-to-date information. ChessPublishing.com also offers Opening Guides in PGN, eBooks in PDF format, and games that summarize the main branches of a line in ChessBase format. Finally, there's an active forum where subscribers get together to discuss various openings and books.
The sum of all this is a rich mine of chess theory, games, and organized material. A loyal subscriber might even argue that ChessPublishing is the only chess resource you need to study and stay up-to-date. You can go to the website ChessPublishing.com to see if you're interested in subscribing.