New ChessBase CDs: "Paul Morphy" and "English opening"

7/22/2003 – The games of Paul Morphy have fascinated generations of chessplayers. But what made Morphy "tick"? What were his strengths and weaknesses? How strong was he? A new ChessBase CD, Paul Morphy: Genius and Myth attemps to provide the answers. It's previewed (along with Mihail Marin's English 1.c4 e5) by Steve Lopez in this week's ChessBase Workshop

NEW CHESSBASE CDs

Previewed by Steve Lopez

I can still remember the first time I ever encountered the English Opening, way back in the day, and (of course) it had to be in a tournament. You can't tell your opponent, "Hey, take that back -- I don't know this one", so I did the only thing I could: I flew by the seat of my pants. And, being the lunatic that I am, I played the gambit move 1...d5. Strangely, it was the first official tournament game I ever won.

But I wised up right away; I'd lucked out in that game and 1...d5 was probably not the way to go. So I adopted 1...e5 as my standard response, which turns the game into a Sicilian Reversed. Either way, 1.c5 is one of the opening moves I traditionally hate to see when I have the Black pieces.

Consequently, I was intrigued by the arrival of the new ChessBase CD English 1.c4 e5 by Mihail Marin in my mailbox. Mr. Marin, by the way, is a 2600+ Elo player who has been Romanian Champion on several occasions. I thought that this was either good or bad news: he certainly knows his stuff, but I was afraid that the material might be a bit over my poor club player head.

First off, let's get the "grunt work" out of the way and look at how the material is structured on the CD. The instructional part of the CD consists of three databases (so divided because of the sheer amount of material -- the Reversed Sicilian spans ten ECO codes: A20 through A29):

  • A20-A24 (27,859 database entries; 15 texts; more than 100 annotated games)
  • A25-A27 (23,895 database entries; 27 texts; more than 100 annotated games)
  • A28-A29 (17,658 database entries; 19 texts; more than 100 annotated games)
The reader should start with the A28-A29 database. This may sound strange to some people at first, but ECO is structured in such a manner that the "main line" variations are typically higher numerically in the alphanumeric hierarchy. So in beginning with A28-A29, you're actually starting with the main line moves. Each of these databases contains an opening key which divides the material into specific variations so that you can easily find the games of a variation you're looking for.

The CD also contains a database of 46 timed training games (to test your knowledge once you've completed the tutorial material); this is a heap of training games, by the way. I've created databases of these for some CDs I've written/edited, and I know from experience that cranking out a half-dozen of these represents a full day's work. Also on the CD is an opening tree of 902,596 unique positions in the Reversed Sicilian. You can use this tree for statistical research (to find the moves which are the most successful), as well as an opening book for Fritz et al. (you load the book into Fritz and it forces the program to play nothing but the Reversed Sicilian, allowing you to play practice games against your computer).

As always, I'm impressed with the way English 1.c4 e5 is organized. The A28-A29 database begins with a historical overview of the opening. Then we dive right in to the instructional material. The texts point out the main moves in each variation and provide links to important games which you'll need to review. But most importantly, Mr. Marin has given us explanations of why these moves are played, which is the single most important facet in truly understanding an opening. And he's provided this info quite nicely, in a conversational style which facilitates the absorption of the material. (Let's face it, many chess books/CDs are boring. While reading English 1.e4 c5 still isn't like reading a bestselling potboiler, the material is presented in a pretty clear and concise, yet engaging, manner). On the technical end, the text makes good use of small touches like indentations and type faces to help guide the reader through the material as painlessly as possible.

I was also gratified to see that ideas for the Black player are presented. While the focus of the CD is on how to play the White pieces, there's plenty of explanation given as to why Black plays what he does, so this CD will work nicely for players who are on either side of the board in this opening.

So who is this CD aimed at? It's not for beginners; you need to know a fair little bit about chess principles to make good use of this disk. I'm not talking about super-advanced stuff here, just the basics on pawn structures and things like what makes a "bad Bishop" bad. Marin isn't about to stop and explain concepts that are best left to the middlegame books and disks. Ultimately, you'll need to assess your own chess knowledge when contemplating the purchase of this CD. My ballpark estimate is that USCF rated 1400+ players should be able to grasp and use what's being offered here, which is not to say that this material is "below" the notice of titled players -- anyone who is at the traditional "club level" or above will find much of value on the CD.

But I will warn you -- you get a lot of "bang for your buck" with this CD. Any opening that spans ten ECO codes will, by definition, require a lot of learning and preparation. So this is not a "Learn the English in 25 Minutes" approach; if you're going to use English 1.c4 e5, be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort -- not because of the presentation (it's organized to be as painless as possible for the reader), but because of the sheer volume of the material involved.

Paul Morphy has captured the imaginations of chessplayers (especially Americans) for over a century and a half. Consequently, when I saw on the website that ChessBase was about to release a new biographical CD on Morphy, I was chomping at the bit for my copy to arrive in the mail.

Maybe calling Paul Morphy: Genius and Myth a "biography" is a misnomer. The authors tell us right up front in the introduction that the CD isn't intended as a biography, since such works have already previously appeared in print form. The true intent of this CD is to dissect Morphy's play. Just how strong a player was the man? What made him successful? What were his deficiencies? These are the kinds of questions that the CD attempts to answer.

Questions such as these tend to frighten me. As a military historian, I get extremely disgusted with the all too numerous modern-day authors who "pronounce judgement" on past commanders from the comfort of armchairs and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. To truly understand figures of the past, we have to try to "crawl into their heads", to know what they knew, and analyze their actions based on the facts as they knew and understood them.

So I'll confess to being a bit spooked by the concept of this CD. It would be grossly unfair to judge Morphy on the basis of Steinitzian principles or in light of the Hypermodern revolution -- that stuff came later. On the other hand, looking at Morphy's play in light of later chess developments does allow a certain contextual framework which wouldn't be available if we were to look at his play only from the standpoint of traditional mid-nineteenth century tactics. Immediately, I began to understand the tightrope that the authors were required to walk.

Since we're discussing "fairness", it would be unfair for me to give away here the conculsions that the authors have reached. So what I will tell you is this: the authors have done an excellent job with their high-wire act on this CD. They do, in fact, look at Morphy's play with the benefit of hindsight, evaluating his chessplaying in the context of later chess developments -- but they do so with complete objectivity and fairness, which is no mean feat. I'm impressed by the balance which Paul Morphy: Genius and Myth achieves. The genesis of Morphy's strengths are evaluated and explained, but his mistakes are also held up to scrutiny. I think the fact that the CD is written by non-Americans certainly helps: too many of my countrymen are "Morphy homers" who idolize the man at the expense of objectivity.

I've read other works which analyze Morphy's chessplaying and I will say that I read nothing in the overall conclusions that startled me. But the finer points on the CD are certainly new, refreshing, and enlightening. The authors are bold enough to provide several texts entitled "Mistakes against ______", in which specific errors against specific players are pointed out. In fact, the entire database entitled "Paul Morphy: Playing Strength" is a new attempt to analyze rather than quantify Morphy's strength as a chessplayer. It's not some bogus effort to slap a mythical Elo strength onto Morphy or to rank him against other players in chess' pantheon, as has often been done in other works (a special "Hello" to Ray Keene and Nathan Divinsky is in order here). Instead, the authors provide an overall impression of his play, then back up their assertions by breaking his play down across the three phases of the game (opening, middlegame, and endgame), as well as by putting his play against specific opponents under the microscope -- the authors explain rather than quantify. It's a heck of an approach and the authors pull it off in fine form.

The CD isn't all about analysis, though. There are biographical texts included in Paul Morphy: Genius and Myth, divided into chapters spanning different phases of his life. These aren't only words -- there are a generous number of outstanding illustrations included as well. There are a large number of well-annotated games on the CD, annotated in text and designed to explain what made Morphy tick. And a separate database provides ninety Morphy combinations, presented as timed training games so that you can test yourself against the yardstick of Morphy's (often brilliant) games.

As a chessplayer and historian, I found Paul Morphy: Genius and Myth to be fair, balanced, informative, interesting, and (best of all) very engaging -- it's truly a pleasure to read. I'm truly fascinated by the ideas presented on this CD -- and I can't think of a better recommendation.

As with other ChessBase CDs, both of the CDs previewed in this article come with the ChessBase Reader program, making them self-contained (no other software is required). But if you own ChessBase or one of the Fritz family of playing programs, use these to read the CD so that you'll have the benefit of the full ranges of features that these programs provide.

Until next week, have fun!



© 2003, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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