ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia 2006

8/10/2006 – ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia 2006 is a DVD so big that it's taken our ChessBase Workshop columnist two articles to do it full justice. In Part One he provides some background, history, and a description of what you'll find when you unwrap the disk. Workshop...

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Way, way back in the early 1960's somebody had a really bright idea which, as bright ideas tend to do, got lost in some subsequent shuffle.

In 1964 I.A. ("Al") Horowitz published a fat little gem of a book called Chess Openings: Theory and Practice. Let's put this in some historical context, just so you'll understand why I called this book a "gem". The Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (and the later Batsford Chess Openings, and Nunn's Chess Openings) hadn't yet made its appearance. There were a couple of the now-familiar "encyclopedic" (lots and lots of opening variations in column/table format, each ending in an evaluation provided using symbolic notation) opening books kicking around on the market at that time, most notably Modern Chess Openings and Fine's Practical Chess Openings.

So what set Chess Openings: Theory and Practice apart from other opening manuals? To begin with, Horowitz actually took the time and trouble to explain why certain opening moves were played. He also drew a distinction between theoretical variations (those which "looked good on paper" and may have been successful in the past) and practical variations (those which were actually being played at chess' top levels). And, topping it all off, Horowitz also provided complete games to illustrate the opening in action; readers weren't left hanging with a simple symbolic evaluation, but were able to actually play through (an admittedly few) complete games.

It's interesting to note that Chess Openings: Theory and Practice has been reprinted many times since the early 1960's and is still widely available today, more than four decades after its introduction. How useful is it? I recently read a chess message board post which recommended against buying this book due to its age, and that post positively baffled me. While it's true that the opening variations contained in its pages are no longer "bleeding edge", the explanations are still first rate and the overall concept (variations coupled with complete games) is outstanding. I own a fairly extensive chess library of several hundred print books (along with several hundred electronic disks) and I bought a second copy of Chess Openings: Theory and Practice because my first had seen so much use that pages were starting to fall out of it -- that's how often I refer to it. And about fifteen years ago I was a close friend (and competitor) of a Class A player who had never read or used any other opening manual aside from Chess Openings: Theory and Practice.

That concept of variations (with evaluations at the end of each) coupled with complete games is what I refered to in the first paragraph of this column as a "really bright idea which got lost in the shuffle". Keep this thought in mind: in Chess Openings: Theory and Practice, you didn't get left hanging with a simple evaluation ("White has a significant advantage") after which you scratched your head and wondered what constituted that "advantage". You had a complete game or three to play through in which you got to see a player exploit that advantage (or in which you saw a level position peter out to a draw, or whatever else the evaluation indicated). That's kind of information is crucial to be able to fully understand a particular opening variation.

Why'd that idea get lost in the shuffle? That's an easy one to answer: money. Chess Openings: Theory and Practice was (and is) a thick book -- nearly eight hundred pages -- and books that size don't come cheap. My first copy, purchased new in the early 1990's, cost close to twenty bucks in paperback; if published today, it would probably run $35 or $40 -- and that's for a book which typically has three to six games for a major opening system, and one (or none) for lesser, offbeat openings. It's simply not feasible to offer great heaping gobs of games in a print format book. These days there are so very many opening variations that the typical encyclopedic column/table book in print format can offer only the variations and evaluations in their hundreds of pages and leave out complete games; it's up to the reader to do the research (using other sources) to find complete games and see the middlegames and endgames which arise from those opening variations.

Unfortunately, many players don't do the "outside bookwork". They find a line which "looks good" ("ECO says White has a winning game here -- cool!") and blindly play it, with no thought to the character of the middlegame (or endgame, if they make it that far) which comes afterward. And I've also unfortunately heard this utterance far too many times: "I don't understand why I lost that game! ECO says I was winning after move fourteen!"

To fully understand an opeing you've got to have complete games to work with, to be able to see why one side has an advantage, to see how successful players exploit that advantage, to be prepared for what comes later. You don't win games in the opening; aside from some nice miniatures I've won in correspondence play, the only games I've won in the opening have been against little kids or against adult noobs (or against computer programs that offer pre-programmed "Fool's Mate" opportunites in your first game against them).

Speaking of computers, that's what changed the whole process of learning about openings. Starting in the late 1980's, you could purchase a 3.5" disk that contained not just opening theory like you'd find in encyclopedic print books (variation upon variation ending in an evaluation given in symbolic notation) but up to 5000 complete games to play through. All of it was organized using an electronic "index" which let you easily find complete games in your chosen opening, and you could even use search facilities to find games in a second manner.

Of course, I'm talking about ChessBase's opening disks, each on an individual opening, which were released periodically from the late 1980's up through 1995. And say what you want about Al Horowitz and his Chess Openings: Theory and Practice, but you've got to give him this: he was a seriously brainy mug who understood what players needed (even when they didn't know they needed it themselves) and was working twenty-five years ahead of his time in a medium that wasn't condusive to what he was trying to provide. My hat's off to the man.

Now let's jump to 1996. After CD drives became the norm in off-the-shelf computers, ChessBase got the bright idea of issuing all of their opening CDs in a single CD package: The ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia. It contained all of the theoretical "surveys" (database entries which provided variations and evaluations in a format replayable right on the screen) from the complete line of 3.5" opening disks along with all of the complete games from those floppies. ChessBase also "filled in the blanks" by including new material on openings which had not yet been covered in the old line of opening disks, so you had a complete compendium of all known openings (not counting trash like Fool's Mates) in a searchable and easily-retrievable format.

And when we're talking about providing complete games, we're not talking about Horowitz' three or four games either (unless we refer to obscure sidelines); when researching a mid-level line, you'd find a dozen or more games. If you're talking about a major opening system, the number ran to dozens, scores, or even hundreds of games.

The ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia was updated every two years with newer surveys and more recent games. The format and packaging has become so popular that the updated schedule was bumped up to annually a couple of years ago (by popular demand).

The newest version is ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia 2006 (of course). What do you get on this DVD? (Note that I said "DVD" and not "CD", from which you may correctly infer that you'll need a DVD drive on your computer to use it). It contains 2.5 million games. It contains surveys covering all five hundred ECO codes, and the major openings are covered by more than one survey -- in fact, there are four thousand of these surveys on the disk. Over 75,000 of the games are annotated. It contains more than two hundred separate theory databases (surveys and complete games) originally published in electronic format in ChessBase Magazine (similar in concept to the theoreticals presented in NiC Yearbook). You get an opening tree for the whole main database, suitable for statistical research or as an alternate opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs.

And this part's killer: it comes with ChessBase 9 Reader, so even if you don't have any of our other programs you can still use the DVD.

A year or two ago I referred to several ChessBase products as "essentials": disks and programs I absolutely can not do without. ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia is definitely on that list. Next time around we'll show you why. 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.

© 2006, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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