John Watson Book Review (54)
The CD Deluge Continues
IM John Watson - Saturday 1st February 2003
The Philidor Defence; Alexander Bangiev; ChessBase 2002
White Repertoire 1.e4; Alexander Bangiev; ChessBase 2002
Dutch Defence A90-A99; Boris Schipkov; ChessBase 2002
Scandinavian Defence; Curt Hansen; ChessBase 2002
Nimzo-Indian 4.f3 and Saemisch; Vadim Milov; ChessBase 2002
The Franco-Benoni; Don Maddux; ChessBase 2002
English 1.c4 e5; Mihail Marin; ChessBase 2002
Chess 81-85 Informants in PGN format, 2001-2002, with Chess Expert 4.0; Sahovsky Informator
Chess Assistant 7; Convekta Ltd; Convekta 2002
Total Chess Training; Convekta 2000
Mega Database 2003; ChessBase 2003
Corr Database 2002; ChessBase 2002
Fritz 8, Hiarcs 8, Shredder 7, Junior 8.0, Deep Junior 8, Chess Tiger 15.0
First, a random bit of news: the excellent and consistent Chess Today will produce issue #1000 on August 4th. I hope to say more in my column about Chess Today soon (I have praised in previous columns). Readers are strongly urged to go to http://www.chesstoday.net .
When I first started doing this column some years back, I felt that chess CDs were up and coming but still lagged behind books for players at most levels of play. It seems to me that they've improved enough to become an ideal medium for some subjects and for players in certain ranges of strength. My enthusiasm for some CD opening products was illustrated by my recent review of Breutigam's work on h3 systems in the King's Indian Defence. In review #47, I praised 'The Slav Defence', authored by GM Dorian Rogozenko, and the two CDs about Emanuel Lasker's games and career were particularly enjoyable. Eric Schiller's work on the Tarrasch Defense to the Queen's Gambit is a must-have for players of that opening, and Chess Central's CD on the life and career of Bogoljubow was another winner. In addition to games and annotations, biographical CDs can contain photographs and even, in the case of ChessBase CDs, live footage of various commentators. I will cover some of these in my next column.
Although it is not my subject here, I don't want to neglect the major companies' periodic publications on CD, ones which are probably the most important to practical players. As discussed in previous columns, I consider ChessBase Magazine the best of the regularly released multi-section CD publications. It includes databases, instructional and theoretical columns, multimedia presentations, and a number of theoretical surveys. For games with annotations by the world's best, one can't beat Chess Informant, which appears in both print and on CD, with the latter available in various formats to users of the free Informant Reader and/or a PGN-compatible program (such as ChessBase; see below). These are premier CD products that appear on a regular basis. While on the subject of publications, I have been informed by readers that New In Chess Yearbooks, extremely popular in hardcover and softcover, no longer appear on CD (as I erroneously asserted in an earlier review).
The lengthy list of products above is for the reader's sake; as you might expect, I've not even opened the wrapper on a few of them. I'd first like to point to a few that are of special value to me. First and foremost of these is the CD Chess 81-85 Informants in PGN format, 2001-2002, with Chess Expert 4.0. As mentioned in the last paragraph, the Chess Informants come out in at least two electronic formats. They first appear in a proprietary format that can be read by the 'Chess Informant Reader' which is a free program that the Informant company provides. You can download it from their website (http://www.sahovski.com/ ), a site that also contains a lot of information about their many other products. I have used the older version of the Reader and find it very easy to move around in and to play through the games and notes with. The new version (not downloadable as far as I know) comes with the CD under discussion and is called Chess Expert 4.0.
The Informator product that I personally find most useful and to which I look forward to with great excitement are the Chess Informants in PGN electronic format. That's because I am primarily a ChessBase user, and most of my data is in ChessBase format. Since PGN files are convertible to ChessBase files, this gives me direct access and control over all the games and notes in each Informant volume. Quite understandably, the Chess Informant folk release the Informants in their own format first (for use with the Reader), so there is often quite a long delay between the publication of the hardcopy Informants (which I use in the meantime) and these PGN versions. But I am grateful that they put the latter out at all; it is a real service to the chess community and I hope that their customer base is large enough to support continued publication in this format. I frankly get more value out of these CD Informants than any other CD product, simply because it allows me direct computer access to the best set of annotated games in the world. If you're interested in using the Informants with ChessBase, be sure that you order the PGN version and not the general one. The Informants to be used with Chess Reader only should also be of great value to those who prefer to work electronically rather than using books. Incidentally, the Chess Informant site above now sells the Convekta products (using Chess Assistant) mentioned in my columns.
Most CDs are still about openings, and ChessBase is the leader in this field by a large margin. In fact, this is one of its advantages over Chess Assistant (discussed below). Two of the above opening CDs I have already used fairly extensively and am very positive about. I already listed Alexander Bangiev's The Philidor Defence in Review #47. It covers just about every conceivable move order in this venerable defence and boldly defends its playability. One does have to pick through the specific variations to find out what works best for White. In the end, I was impressed most with the 'closed' variations after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3, in which Black plays ...Nbd7, ...Be7, ...0-0, ...c6, and normally ...b6, ...a6, ...Qc7, and ...Bb7 followed by ...b5 at some point. The 'open' variations with ...exd4, whether Black plays for ...Be7, ...0-0, and ...Re8, or for ...g6 and ...Bg7, seem to me ultimately unsatisfactory (in theoretical terms), although the latter setup can be dynamic and exciting.
Bangiev's CD has 17 Chapters (with many subdivisions). By comparison, Curt Hansen's Scandinavian Defence has 62 chapters, in part because Scandinavian theory diverges into so many subsystems and different attempts by White to gain the advantage. The fundamental breakdown after 1.e4 d5 is between 2...Qxd5 and 2...Nf6, the former move having received the most attention from strong players over the last 15 years or so. These players have generally been a couple of levels down from the elite GMs, although Bent Larsen was instrumental in bringing 2...Qxd5 to widespread attention at the end of the 1970s. The CD's author Curt Hansen has played it often, as have Matthias Wahls (who wrote a book about it), Niels Jorgen Fries Nielsen, and Ian Rogers. Anand famously got an excellent game with the ...Qxd5 Scandinavian versus Kasparov in their World Championship match, but faltered and lost. Otherwise the move hasn't received as much playing time as have even much less solid openings, which is interesting, because its theory doesn't indicate that Black is necessarily worse. If White plays slowly, a few lines end in a light advantage for him, but that's true of most openings. There are also a few critical and highly tactical lines. One of the most interesting (with options for both sides along the way) goes 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.h3 Bh5 7.g4 Bg6 8.Ne5 e6 9.Bg2 c6 10.h4 Nbd7 11.Nxd7 Kxd7!, when Black's structure is very good but of course his king position is suspect. Now the conservative 12.Bd2 h6 is probably okay for Black, so Hansen gives his own original analysis on the aggressive 12.d5! exd5 13.h5 Re8+ 14.Kf1 Qa6+
And either15.Ne2 Rxe2 or 15.Kg1 Be4 16.f3 Bc5+ with a very messy game in which Black gets an attack and two or sometimes three pawns for his piece. This is a typical Hansen contribution, and his effort and openness on the CD makes both it and the opening worth considering.
Nimzo-Indian 4.f3 and Saemisch by GM Vadim Milov is fun and absorbing. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4, the author has scored extremely well with both 4.f3 and 4.a3. These are fascinating lines but in looking at the theory on the CD, no matter how you add it up, Black is doing fine and it is White who often has to scramble for counterplay or risk getting a long-term positional disadvantage. Milov is very honest about pointing out such problems. Even obscure lines like 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 c5 6.e3 b6!? he considers difficult for White, the main line being 7.Bd3 Bb7 8.f3 0–0 9.Ne2 Nc6 10.e4 Ne8 11.0–0 Na5 12.Ng3 cxd4 13.cxd4 Rc8 14.f4 Nxc4 15.f5 f6 16.Rf4 b5! 'with counterplay and probably an advantage for Black'.
Similarly, we have variations like 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.dxc5 Qa5 (Milov also thinks that 8...f5 equalizes) 9.e4 Nf6 (the main lines with 9...Ne7 also give Black equality in several ways, according to Milov) 10.Be3 Nfd7 11.Qb3 0–0 12.a4 Qc7 13.Qa3 b6! 14.cxb6 axb6 15.Ne2 Ba6 with equality.
In a sense, this is the drawback of the CD: it's not clear why White would want to play these lines, except perhaps as a short-term weapon or against targeted opponents. As a theoretical contribution it is first-rate: Milov gives an excellent overview of the lines but more importantly identifies the critical ones and finds out the truth about them.
Turning briefly to the subject of chess playing programs and analytical engines (Fritz 8, Hiarcs 8, Shredder 7, Junior 8.0, ChessTiger 15.0), I must say that only a particularly interested programmer or very special fan of playing programs will need more than a couple of these. But most chessplayers will want at least one. The programs listed offer far more than just a playing partner, allowing all kinds of analytical levels and functions, direct connection to Internet playing sites, opening, middlegame, and endgame training and the like. They have database functions that are similar to ChessBase's in terms of saving games, switching databases, and the like, and games can be imported directly from ChessBase, analysed, and replaced in the original database (or saved separately). I looked at the latest SSDF Computer Rating List that I could find online and discovered these figures: with the same amount of memory and processor, Shredder 7.04 is rated at 2810, Shredder 7 at 2770, Fritz 8 at 2762, Chess Tiger 15.0 at 2720, Junior 7.0 at 2697 (note that Junior 8.0 is out), and Hiarcs 8 at 'only' 2682. For the average player, I doubt that any of this makes much difference. Of the two engines that I use most, I think of Fritz as being tactically sharper and HiArcs as having some interesting assessments that strike me as 'positional'; but the difference isn't very significant. One can spend a lot of time playing around with (and against) these programs. I view them mainly as an assistant to my analysis. Note that Chess Tiger is the program that accompanies the Chess Assistant database program (perhaps now with Shredder, but I'm not sure). It and all of the rest are sold by and compatible with ChessBase.
Next I'd like to fix our attention on the release of Chess Assistant 7, the second-to-latest version of the widely-used database program that is a direct competitor to the ChessBase database program. It is particularly popular (as far as I can tell from conversations) in Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe. I haven't received Chess Assistant 7.1, so this version will have to do. Although I have never reviewed ChessBase as a separate product as I will do for Chess Assistant here, I very often refer to the CDs that ChessBase produces to use with it and to ChessBase products. So I will try to draw some limited comparisons between the two while describing Chess Assistant. The main thing to keep in mind is that I've used ChessBase for years and Chess Assistant only recently, so these are overall impressions only. Software products from both companies come with a 'Light' version of the main program (or it can be downloaded from their websites), and both are fairly powerful, so that is an extremely good way to familiarise yourself with their features.
Convekta (the company behind Chess Assistant; their website is http://www.convekta.com ) produces a lot of data and supporting software for their program. I've reviewed only their chess biography CDs in this column and will cover two more in the next column – there are 5 of them, all about world champions. Along with those, most of their software is in the instructive/training category, e.g., separate CDs on endgames, tactics and middlegame, with others on studies, blunders, and beginners instruction. These products are put out in anywhere from 2 to 6 languages, very often the latter number. Many of the above mentioned categories are combined on a CD called Total Chess Training, which might be the smartest purchase for those starting out with Chess Assistant since it covers all parts of the game. To be fair, ChessBase also produces similar products (endgames, tactics, etc.) for the developing player, and includes something for every level of player in each issue of ChessBase Magazine. Both produce an opening encyclopaedia based upon ECO codes. I would nevertheless say that overall, Chess Assistant CDs concentrate more upon training content, with beginning and intermediate material; whereas ChessBase has many more high-quality openings CDs and an emphasis on intermediate and advanced material. Both programs produce a number of database programs, including tablebases for their engines. ChessBase has a wider range of databases with, for example, a large correspondence database 'Correspondence Database 2002' that contains 400,000 games, many annotated, and a wonderful and encylopaedic study collection (by van der Heijden, previously reviewed).
It is perhaps relevant to add that of the other companies or individuals who produce chess CDs, most use ChessBase formats. As far as I can tell, Chess Assistant can read databases from Chessbase (I did so) but not manipulate them, for example, I couldn't save my changes to a game coming from a ChessBase database back to that database. But one can convert databases from other formats into Chess Assistant format and work with them directly (probably best). It may well be that exports and imports in PGN format give Chess Assistant users another way to share and convert material, but I haven't tried this. In general, to find out such things one should talk to an experienced Chess Assistant user. PGN files are supported by both programs.
Chess Assistant 7 boasts other features that correspond to or resemble those of ChessBase, e.g., automatic analysis, blunder check, removal of duplicates, and built-in chess engines, of which there seems only one or two compatible major programs: the Tiger 15 engine comes with a purchase of Chess Assistant 7, as do a number of others of lesser strength; I believe that Shredder has recently been added, but not to my version. Chess Assistant does all kinds of searches and this is but one of many other features which seem similar in both programs. As an extra plus, Chess Assistant comes with a free separate disc with 2 million+ game database. ChessBase gives you a large database free with its program but for the best of theirs - currently Megabase 2003 - you have to pay separately. The latter does include a large number of thoroughly annotated games. Chess Assistant also advertises ICC support (with a one-month free membership). To me, the most interesting other external bonus is the free monthly game download service with 'around 10,000 games per month'. The website claims that they provide around '2,500 new games and more than 1000 commented games weekly to upgrade your current database'. These are available in both Chess Assistant and PGN format. Unfortunately, when I registered I got 9-number code and when I tried to update it asked for an 18-digit code, so I haven't figured out how to get the subscription update. When I went to the website, however, I found free weekly installments even for non-registered Chess Assistant users averaging about 1000 games apiece (unannotated). Assuming that the subscriber update is available, as I'm sure it is, the number 10,000 is intriguing. The Chess Assistant folk must be using an expanded set of sources, because the number of games per month from TWIC is much less. Probably many of these come from Russian and Eastern European sites. The number of 'commented' games (1000 weekly) sounds staggering, but then we find that 'commenting' means 'produced by the CA7 program using unique algorithms for intellectual analysis worked out by GM ICCF Maxim Blokh'. When I looked at some of the free commented games from the site, they tended to have relevant games in the same variation merged in (once the game had gotten past the early opening, of course), and then a few assessments and evaluations in numbers (as in ChessBase) with an occasional question mark or dubious sign, for example, and a suggested alternative. In other words, we have a sort of automatic analysis, similar to the sort of thing Fritz, HiArcs and most of the leading chessplaying programs do, but with very little detail. I imagine that the references to games by other players are useful, and it must be said that this is something more than what you get from a raw game score; but it's not much. I suggest that interested readers find some of these games and see what they think of the notes. By stark contrast, when you get games annotated by a top player, such as the three free Wijk aan Zee games by Joel Lautier, the notes are extremely thorough. In both cases, it would, however, be nice to have some verbal commentary. Also keep in mind the extra 1500 games or so for subscribers may have better notes—I just don't know.
In case you haven't caught on yet, I haven't used Chess Assistant enough to assess it fairly. I simply don't have time to delve deeply into it, and have only used it for a short time (with no problems arising). I myself am a ChessBase user like most of the players and authors that I know (as far as I can tell, most of the world's leading players use ChessBase), and I've always been happy with that program. It has some merging and database manipulation functions that I really like; while Chess Assistant can 'join' (merge) games, it doesn't seem to have the flexibility to choose partial lines within a game and drag them to the other. Chess Assistant will however do an fast and automatic ECO-style merging of games by referencing the current database, a very useful function for any theoretically inclined player. At any rate, since I find that I can't even begin to learn all the functions in ChessBase, or all the ways to use them, it's unrealistic for me to work in two major database programs. Yet many other players, especially those who began with Chess Assistant years ago (it's a little bit like Mac versus IBM in that respect), praise it and talk about superior search capabilities. I'm not convinced about that, but I can definitely say that I prefer the ChessBase interface; this used to be a weakness, but is now an attractive and user-friendly feature. Both programs have efficient methods of navigation, but they are very different and must be tried out before one can form an opinion. The fact is that most players already have a preferred database program and will likely stick with it. If you are starting out and are not used to either program, I suggest that you either try out both of them (using your friends' versions or more likely the free 'Light' versions), and listen to other more knowledgeable voices than mine. It's probably important to have the program that your chess friends and email chess correspondents have, but to some extent that can be compensated for by using PGN files.
I will get around to the less delicate subject of biographical CDs in the next column.