Fritz calculation training - part one

3/16/2008 – In a new ChessBase Workshop series, dedicated to the new Fritz 11 calculation training, we begin with a discussion about chess visualization and how it colors nearly everything we do as players. But how can we as players traditionally hone our visualization skills? With Fritz 11. Steve Lopez explains this in a new series of his Workshop.
Calculation (also known as "visualization") is at the core of what we do as chessplayers. Sure, we all sometimes find ourselves in positions that we can play by "instinct" or by handy rules of thumb (a lot of simple endgames qualify as such), and many of us can fire off the first ten or twelve "book" moves of our favorite openings with no problem. But when it's all said and done, much of what we do as chessplayers boils down to the gruntwork of saying to ourselves, "If I do this, he does that, and then I play this, and he replies with that..."

Many non-chessplayers think that's all we do; how many times has a non-player asked you, "How many moves can you see ahead?"? Of course, we know better; in fact, we run across many "quiet" positions in which a simple developing move will suffice and we don't even have to worry about our opponent's reply. You'll play few games, however, in which you won't have to calculate a variation at least a few moves deep.

Chessplayers recognize the value of calculation. Entire books, often rather advanced manuals, have been written on the subject of calculation/visualization. Sometimes, though, even beginner books stress the point; one of the best basic tactics manuals bears the subtitle "How To See Three Moves Ahead". So even though the public at large thinks that the main skill required in chess is the ability to "see ahead", the fact remains that it is an important skill to cultivate.

How do we as players traditionally hone our visualization skills? The traditional method, of course, is to solve printed chess problems. You're certainly familiar with the type: "Mate in x" positions or tactics problems in which the goal is to find a forced move sequence which wins a significant amount of material for the moving side. Such problems are unquestionably valuable practice tools for sharpening our ability to visualize board positions and calculate concrete variations; that's the reason why any newspaper chess column worth its salt was expected to provide a tactics puzzle at the end of the piece, a standard practice which has mostly (sadly) gone the way of the dodo. (By the way, these problems were wildly popular in non-chess publications for a long, long time; I still recall that the veteran's magazines which my dad used to read when I was a child often contained chess problems.)

These puzzles, however, share a common trait which could be considered a "flaw": their deterministic nature. Let's take as an example the standard "White to move and mate in three" problem. You're given a board position, you're told that it's White's move, and that White mates in three moves no matter what Black does. That's all well and good, but the problem is that you don't have that kind of information when you're playing an actual game. The same thing applies to tactics puzzles in which you're told the "theme" (pin, fork, skewer, etc.); armed with this knowledge the average player can usually find the solution. Sit that same player down in front of the identical position on an actual chessboard with a live opponent sitting across from him, and I'll bet you dollars to donuts that he won't find that same solution nine times out of ten.

Of course, there's always the option of limiting the "starting" information; a position might be presented with the notation "White to move and mate". The puzzle now becomes a little bit tougher, because you don't know how many moves are required to force the mate. You'll see the same kind of thing in the last chapter of many tactics books: you'll be presented with a position and the side to move, but not be told the "type" of tactic. It changes the complexity of the problem, but it's still a "cut and dried" thing -- you know there's a mate or tactic there already, even if you can't find it. That's far more information than you have in an actual chess game.

(That reminds me of a story. Many years ago, the first time I played Fritz in "Sparring" mode, I reached an endgame without the software signalling me to the presence of a tactic. At some point in the endgame it was my turn to move; I had an unimpeded pawn on the seventh rank. Suddenly the little "pilot light" came on next to the board, alerting me to the presence of a tactic. My gut told me to just promote, but.... Silly me -- I didn't consider a simple promotion to be a "tactic" in the classic sense, so I started looking for some kind of mating combination. I played another move which I thought started a mating attack; instead, I lost the game. It turns out that Fritz considers a promotion to be a "tactic". Moral of the story: when the path ain't clear, go with your gut.)

So that's why I mentioned something which might be considered a flaw with chess problems: you know going in that they have a solution.

Of course, (excluding chess compositions, which sometimes offer positions which are impossible to achieve in a normal game of chess) there have been a few books along the way which offer non-tactical chess problems for the reader to solve. These books usually present what computer chess afficionados term "quiescent" positions: ones in which there is no single forcing tactical course of action (checks, useful captures, forcing mating or material-winning sequences, etc.). These books are typically marketed as an opportunity to test your strategic or positional play. But, here again, the author of such a book is still looking for a single "solution" (or, in some cases, one or two additional alternative solutions are allowed), dropping us right back into the conundrum of searching for a pre-determined "best" solution.

Now what would you say if I was to tell you that you could take practically any chess position and turn it into a scorable exercise in calculation? That you could start with a random chess position and be graded not only on how far you could "see ahead" but on the subjective strength of the variation you decide upon?

The latest Fritz version, Fritz11, contains just such a feature. You can take any position (be it from an existing database game or one you construct using "Position setup") and turn it into a gradable calculation exercise. You start with a position, make as many moves for both sides as you can (without actually moving the pieces on the board), and then have Fritz grade you on both the legality of the sequence (thus scoring your visualization skills) and the strength of the actual moves (thus assigning a score depending on whether or not your visualized variation was any good).

Does that sound good? You're dang right it does. Next time around we'll look at the basic operation of Fritz' Calculation trainer feature. Until then, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. All responses will be read, and sending an e-mail to this address grants us permission to use it in a future column. No tech support questions, please.



© 2008, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.



Topics f11
Feedback and mail to our news service Please use this account if you want to contribute to or comment on our news page service



Discuss

Rules for reader comments

 
 

Not registered yet? Register