Programs and essentials

3/13/2005 – ChessBase Workshop columnist Steve Lopez has again turned his attention to previews of ChessBase products. In his latest column, he previews four products that he terms "essentials": software that he can't live without. Find out what makes them so vital in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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previewed by Steve Lopez

It's a cold February afternoon. I'm sitting here with aching legs and a head that feels like a balloon, both caused by having way too much fun last night -- everything in life has a price, but the costs get higher the older you get (though, really, as Indiana Jones said, "it's the mileage"). I'm cranking up some old .38 Special, Rosanne Cash, and Allman Brothers tunes but for some reason they just ain't gettin' it today. I'm out of beer and it's too danged cold outside to head out to obtain more. And, to top it all off, it's fixin' to snow at any minute.

Is it any wonder that I'm cranky today?

I love getting new chess software in the mail; that's never in doubt. But (as I related a few columns back) I'd almost rather eat a bag of broken glass raw than write previews of the disks. As I sit here in the Skull Cave (my kids' name for this tangled rat's nest that I call "an office": a deranged cross between a college professor's cluttered domain, a museum of movie, automotive, and sports memorabilia, and a lunatic's idea of an amusement park), I look around and see the pile of unpreviewed software getting high enough to cause a minor avalanche if I bump it; it's well past time for me to start writing about it.

Rather than devote an entire column to each product (as I've done in the past), I'm going to offer "capsule" previews of each -- really just the bare-bones basics of what you'll need to know when deciding on an acquisition. This week I'll start with two new playing programs and a couple of other items I term "essentials": products that I personally can't do without come hell or high water.


People are always asking me to characterize the playing styles of various chess engines. That's easy with some of them: Shredder (see below) plays pretty solidly, almost defensively, Hiarcs plays a bit less defensively but nonetheless gives a human-like game, Tiger plays extremely tactically. But Junior's always been something of a cypher. I call its play "erratic", not because it's bad, but because you're never quite sure what you're going to see from it. One game it'll aggressively try to tear your head off, the next game it'll play more defensively, the game after that it'll play some tactic (maybe even an unsound one) to blow a position wide open. Junior is full of surprises -- and that's exactly why some players swear by it, while others just swear at it.

Consequently (in my opinion), Junior's the most fun ChessBase engine to play against. I'm not sure that I 100% trust its post-game analysis (that's why I always have Fritz, Shredder, and Junior analyze my games, with Junior casting the "swing vote") but I do truly love to play against it. So it's always great to see a new version of Junior hit my mailbox.

The centerpiece of Junior9 is, of course, the Junior9 engine itself which (as always) has been tweaked up quite a bit since the last version. The GUI is the now-familiar ChessProgram8, which is the same user interface as in Fritz8 and the other latest ChessBase engine versions. The advantage here should be obvious: you don't need to learn a whole new interface just because you bought a new chess program; you already know the commands. This is the latest version of the GUI, too (e.g. it contains Chess Media System support as one of its features).

Several 3D boards ship with the Junior9 program, all of which have previously appeared in other ChessBase playing program packages: Balloon, Classic Glass, Silver, and the "Hires" board (which will appear in the list as "____Room", depending on which program name you've set as the GUI default).

The Junior9 package also contains the standard 511,873 game database which ships with our other playing programs. But Junior9 has its own unique opening book, tailored for Junior's style of play. The book seeks to maximize Junior's strengths and minimize its weaknesses to improve Junior's results. This specialized book contains 3,737,859 individual board positions.

An added feature of the package is an hour-long interview with Amir Ban, co-programmer of Junior. If you're the least bit interested in the "nuts and bolts" of chess programming, you'll find this to be some fascinating viewing. The interview is included as a single .wmv file, viewable in the interface as a Chess Media System file or externally using Windows Media Player (or any other software capable of running .wmv files). I have just one quibble with the interview (and this is merely a personal observation): I think the interview should have been broken down into several shorter .wmv files. There are portions of the interview which I'd like to reference at a later time and it would have been easier to find them had the video been broken into sections (sort of like the "scene selection" feature which you find on better DVDs).

Overall, Junior9 is a very worthwhile addition to your stable of chessplaying engines. Its style of play defies categorization (just like that one guy down at the chess club who's always surprising you with new ideas -- the guy you just can't "pin down") and it's a lot of fun to play against.


Those readers who know me (or especially have played against me) know that I'm hopelessly in love with gambits and sacrifices; there really ought to be a "12-step program" for players like me. I'm always offering up pawns in the opening, looking for that game-winning sacrifice, or trying to find a game-saving swindle (an unsound sac that so unnerves my opponent that he lets me crawl out of the latest hole I've dug for myself). That's why I seldom play games against Shredder -- our styles are totally antithetical. Shredder plays solid chess, almost a Petrosian-like style, which makes it difficult for a kamikaze like me to find a way to break through. As a playing engine Shredder drives me crazy.

As an analysis engine, though, I trust Shredder completely. I use Shredder all the time to analyze my own games or to double-check my alternative analysis before I publish a game I've annotated. I trust Shredder. It makes me madder than a wet hen when I play against it, but as an analysis tool it's my best pal.

As with Junior (above), the new Shredder9 engine makes up the guts of the latest package. Unlike prior versions, the new engine is not enabled for multiple processors (if you have a multi-brain box you'll have to wait on Deep Shredder to make its appearance). However, the new engine still has a mind-numbing array of "tweaks" available under "Engine parameters" (including several settings under "Style": Intelligent, Aggressive, Active, Normal, and Solid, as well as the familiar "position learning" feature which is a Shredder trademark).

You'll also be using the familiar ChessProgram8 GUI which allows you to plug in any ChessBase engine and use it without learning a whole new set of interface commands. The Shredder9 package also contains a small basic set of the Nalimov endgame tablebases.

As with the other ChessBase playing programs, the Shredder9 package contains the standard 511,873 game database (a far cry from the days when 500 games in a chessplaying program's database was considered "generous"). Shredder9 contains its own specialized opening book designed to wring the best play from the engine by getting it into positions which it finds congenial; this special opening book contains 2,608,486 unique board positions.

The software package also contains several 3D boards, all of which have previously appeared in other ChessBase playing programs: Wood, Metal, Glass, and the Hires Wood "Room" board (mentioned above for Junior).

Shredder enjoys the reputation of being a "serious" chess engine. Some engines (like Tiger) are almost strictly for playing against but you wouldn't bet your life on their analysis. Shredder's play and analysis are rock solid -- given a decent search time/ply depth, I've never seen Shredder suggest a bad move. Shredder9 is more than just a chessplaying partner/opponent -- it's a serious analytical tool. I can't think of a better recommendation.


There are databases and then there are databases. I've seen database packages that are complete crap; one such package from about six or eight years ago was just a pile of games downloaded from the Internet. No standardization of header information (spelling or otherwise), no addition of Elo ratings or ECO codes when such were absent, no checking of the information to see that it was accurate. It was the pits. I forget whether I used my disk as a drink coaster or as skeet. And it wasn't (or isn't) the only package on the market that wasn't worth a first look, much less a second.

It takes a lot of work -- serious work -- to produce an outstanding database package. I've seen a grand total of two that I trust, and ChessBase's annual database package is one of them (the other is a non-ChessBase product produced by an independent company not affiliated with any particular database program).

The annual Big and Mega Databases from ChessBase contain the same games as each other. The difference is that the Big Database is entirely unannotated, while the Mega Database contains a generous dollop of annotated games. We'll get to the specifics in a minute. But my main point here is that the Mega Database is a software product that I consider an "essential": as a chessplayer, as a writer, as a researcher. The Mega Database is more than just a big collection of games: it's the most complete historical record of chessplay over the last couple of centuries that you're likely to find anywhere.

The Mega Database contains standardized name spellings (no more multiple spellings of "Kortchnoi") as well as standardized header information (you do a search for "Linares" games and you get 'em all, without worrying about whether or not a particular annual event had some sponsorship attached to it). Players' Elo ratings are included when available (for the post 1971 games, of course, for obvious reasons). ECO codes are attached to each game that starts from the standard opening position (excluded, of course, are the popular 1800's "odds" games). ChessBase specializes in providing complete tournaments in their databases, so you can generate crosstables in the ChessBase software without "holes" being created by absent games.

It's a heap of work to put all of this together but it's a labor of love. The purpose is to preserve as far as possible our complete chess heritage for this and future generations to enjoy and learn from.

As for the specifics, there are over 2,900,000 games included in the database and more than 59,000 of them are annotated! Now I always hear the comment, "I'll never play through all of those games!" Correct. So why is such a large database crucial? Because it's all there. Whether you're doing a search for the games of a particular player for an article you're writing, all of the games of a particular opening to get an overview of its variations, all the games containing a specific board position to get some clues as to what to play next in a correspondence game, you'll find all of the info available. In chess, there's no such thing as "too much information"; I can site numerous cases in which the Mega Database "saved my bacon" when I was writing a biographical sketch of a famous player and was running against a tight deadline or when I was in a jam as I found myself in an unfamiliar opening in a correspondence game.

On to the "specs" of the disk. Mega DB 2005 ships on DVD because of the enormous volume of information it contains. Included are the Mega Database itself (as described above) as well as a somewhat smaller database: the Top Database. This database is a selected "subset" of the Mega Database; it contains 600,000 games from top-level tournaments from 1834 to 2004 -- the "best of the best", if you will, designed for high-level chess training.

Also included are two opening keys. One is in ChessBase 8 format, usable with the Fritz family of playing programs as well as older versions of ChessBase. The new ChessBase 9 format opening key was described a few short weeks ago in ChessBase Workshop and is a vast improvement over the older format.

You'll also find a new version of the Players Encyclopedia for use within ChessBase. As always, the PE has been greatly expanded and updated: the latest version contains over 22,000 images.

Mega Database 2005 is much more than a mere game collection. It's a chess library on a disk, the historical record of chess play ever since Philidor. Don't ask me to do without it -- ask me to cut my leg off instead. It's that danged essential.


Powerbook 2005 is another ChessBase product that I absolutely cannot live without. Why? Am I a computer chessplayer, trying hard to earn "top dog" status for my machine on a Internet computer vs. computer chess server? No, no, no! In fact, computer chessplayers looking for an "edge" for their programs should leave Powerbook alone. I discussed the reasons why at length in a prior column on this site; please refer back to that piece for details.

No, I'm a chessplayer -- I play the game myself. And I use chess engines as training tools in preparation for my games against human opposition. The problem with the opening books that come with the Fritz "family" of playing programs is that they tend to steer the engines along similar lines: open positions where tactics rule. While this is great for the engines, it's not the best thing for me. I'd love for my opponents to subsequently oblige me by playing nothing but open positions, but a few of these guys are just plain uncooperative and insist on playing closed games for perverse reasons known only to themselves.

The Powerbook contains all sorts of openings: open, closed, King- and Queen-pawn, fianchettos, you name it. And that's a blessing for me, the human player, because I'm liable to see my silicon sparring partner play pretty close to anything that my human opponents are likely to throw at me.

Powerbook 2005 is the latest incarnation of this "master" opening book, containing theory from the dawn of time up through late 2004. It ships on DVD because of the vast amount of material contained on the disk.

There are actually two opening books (and their "source" databases) included in Powerbook 2005. The main attraction is, of course, the latest Powerbook. The opening book contains 20,070,734 unique opening positions. No, friend, my keyboard didn't just hiccup -- that's more than twenty million unique board positions! The corresponding database (also included) contains just a hair over one million games.

The second opening book, called Strong 2005, is a smaller subset of the Powerbook, containing more-commonly played, statistically sounder openings. For example, silly stuff like 1.f3 (which might actually be played by your club-level opposition and which does appear in the main Powerbook) has been blown off; you'll see more "serious" and more sound openings in Strong 2005. Even sound but marginal or unclear openings have been excised from the book. Consequently it's a fair bit smaller: 971,027 unique positions are included in Strong 2005. Its companion database contains a bit over 50,000 games.

Why are the source databases included? Because opening books aren't just for engines to use to know what to play against you -- they're also valuable research tools. You can load a board position, reference the opening book, and see at a glance what's been played from that position. You can also obtain statistical information for each of those candidate moves: their success rates, the average ratings of the players and their performance ratings (a function of the players' ratings and the games' results), as well as the total number of times each resulting position appears in the source database. You simply "tie together" the opening book and the database (and we'll likely discuss this in an upcoming ChessBase Workshop), and with a few mouse clicks you have your info.

Here, as with Mega Database, I use Powerbook when I'm wearing either of my "hats": as a chessplayer or as a writer/researcher. It's an extraordinarily valuable tool and I use it extensively. Don't take my Powerbook, take my other leg instead.

That wraps up my short look at some essential additions to your chess arsenal. We'll look at more specialized disks in the coming weeks. Until then, have fun!

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

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