ChessBase 9's material balance display

2/15/2005 – According to Jeremy Silman, imbalances are the keys to understanding chess positions. That's why ChessBase products don't provide a mere "captured pieces" display -- they display the material balance of what remains on the board. Find out how to use this valuable feature in our latest ChessBase Workshop.

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CHESSBASE 9'S MATERIAL BALANCE DISPLAY

by Steve Lopez

I see the question asked all the time on computer chess message boards all over the Interrant: "Can captured pieces be displayed in ChessBase 9?"

The short answer is "no". The accurate answer is "not exactly". But you can get a display which is (in my opinion, at least) a whole lot better.

I'll take a wild unscientific guess here (so no e-mails please) and say that probably over 90% of all chessplayers who own a computer also own more than one chess program. That's been my experience anyway, just from talking with my friends and opponents. Not everyone is as compulsive about it as I am (I won't try to give an exact count of the chess programs I own, but it's in the triple-digits) but just about everyone has more than one single piece of chessplaying software. So I'm pretty safe in assuming that you've seen a program or ten which provides a pane or box on the screen that shows all of the captured pieces. I could name quite a few of these programs, but a couple of guys (i.e. competitors) get all uppity online whenever I even mention one of these programs. So I'll refrain -- I have better things to do than respond to their shrill shrieking.

Now I don't know about you but I always found these displays to be something of a mixed blessing, especially in the endgame. You have to sit there and actually count the pieces and pawns to determine who's lost what. It's a grind (and it's often easier just to look at what's left on the board to make that determination) and it's not all that helpful. You see, the big thing here isn't quantity -- that old point count thing where you add up the values of the pieces and see who's "ahead". The important factor is quality or, more accurately, the material imbalance of what's left on the board. I won't go into an extensive rambling screed on the importance of material imbalances; I'll refer you instead to Jeremy Silman's books for a better and more thorough explanation. But let's say that we're in an endgame and you have a Knight and I have three widely-separated and advanced pawns. If you do the old "point-count" thing we're pretty much dead even since a Knight is generally worth about three pawns. But in reality (and, of course, a lot will depend on the actual board position) I'll take my three pawns over your Knight when it comes to the clutch. You might be able to stop two of them, but I'll promote that third one and rip your King's head off. So the "point count" is meaningless in such a case -- the actual imbalance between the scattered pawns and the Knight is much more significant.

That's why ChessBase 9 (as well as the Fritz "family" of playing programs) doesn't have the traditional "captured pieces" box. You can instead toggle "on" a material imbalance display which will show you exactly that: the imbalance between the pieces of wood which remain on the board. We'll look at an example in a moment, but first let's see how to turn the danged thing on.

Fire up ChessBase 9 and load a game. Right-click in the Notation pane and select "Show material". This will now display a white bar at the bottom of the Notation pane; this bar is the "material imbalance" display.

Let's look at an example. Here's a board position from one of my old tournament games (played in Frederick MD, USA in 1994, for those keeping score at home). I'm White and I just played 20.Bf3:

In this position an old-style "captured pieces" box would show a pawn and a Knight of each color because that's what's off the board. You'd look at that display and say "Hmmmm, dead even". That'd be easy because not much material is off of the board at this point and the two sides' material losses are identical. In ChessBase 9, though, you'll see a blank material imbalance display; there is no material imbalance -- both sides have identical material on the board. That's all well and good, but let's see what happens next.

I won't go into all the merits (or demerits) of the position, but my opponent is feeling a wee bit cramped, sees that my e1-Bishop is disconnecting my back-rank majors, and has missed the potential ...Bb6 pin on the d-pawn. He therefore decides to blow open the center with a sacrifice and plays 20...Nxe5. This doesn't exactly hand me the game or anything, but it's kind of nice for me that he wants to sac a minor piece in a closed position. The material imbalance display was blank after my move (20.Bf3) but now displays something after my opponent plays 20...Nxe5:

At this point Black is ahead by a pawn, so the material imbalance display shows a Black pawn. This does not mean that Black is down a pawn -- quite the opposite. The display shows material imbalance, so a Black pawn in the display means that Black is ahead by a pawn.

Now think back on the old-style captured pieces display. You'd see two White pawns, a Black pawn, and a Knight for each side. You'd have to do a (admittedly wee) bit of mental arithmetic to arrive at the conclusion that Black is up a pawn. For my money, CB9's material imbalance display is better and easier because it tells me at a glance that Black is up by one peon. Now let's get back to the game.

Obviously, I played 21.dxe5. Now the material imbalance display looks like this:

Now the old "captured pieces" display would get murkier, as it would now show two White pawns, a Black pawn, a White Knight, and two Black Knights. You'd look at that display and then have to start "crossing off matching pieces": one pawn for each side and a Knight for each side (and it would be still worse if the display showed pieces in the order of capture instead of grouping "like" pieces together. Don't laugh -- I've seen programs that do this). You'd ultimately wind up with the conclusion that White is ahead a Knight for a pawn but you'd have to work a bit to do it; meanwhile, pardner, your mind ain't on the board position and the other hombre is likely thinking about the board and not the box.

Now look again at the material imbalance display. It's right there for you: a White Knight and a Black pawn. Ergo White is ahead materially a Knight for a pawn. Simple.

My opponent did the natural thing and played 21.Qxe5, capturing a pawn. I don't even what to try to describe what an infernal mess a "captured pieces" box would be now. Instead I'll just show you CB9's material imbalance display:

And we see at a glance that White (i.e. me) is up a Knight for two pawns, so I have a material edge. But there's also a material imbalance here: Black has extra pawns, I have an extra piece. So what do I do now? Hopefully I've brushed up on my Silman beforehand -- heh. That piece vs. pawn imbalance will provide me with important clues on how to proceed.

I won't bore you (or embarrass my opponent and myself) with the moves of the blunderfest which followed, but I did go on to increase my material advantage and win the game.

So you can see how important the material balance display is in CB9 (and Fritz). It doesn't simply show the material that's off the board -- it shows the imbalances in what remains on the board, which is much more crucial that a mere "point count".

Now you know why I qualified that initial "no" by turning it into a "not exactly". You don't get a "captured pieces" box in ChessBase software -- you get something better.

Until next week, have fun!

Articles on ChessBase 9.0


© 2005, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


Topics cb9
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