ChessBase and Correspondence chess -- part 4

by ChessBase
4/3/2007 – In the fourth part of our ongoing ChessBase Workshop series on correspondence chess, we'll learn about your "electronic research assistant" who will take care of the drudgery of finding and tabulating the results of past games in your master database. Find out more about the Opening Report in this week's ChessBase Workshop.

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Now that you've properly set up two databases for your correspondence games (one database for the actual moves and one for your analysis) and sent off a postcard or e-mail with your opening move (1.e4 in this case, since we're going to be following one of my old correspondence games), what happens when you receive your opponent's reply?

The first thing you should do upon receiving a reply from your opponent is enter the move into both of your databases, remembering to include the postmark/timestamp info and all other relevant information in your "actual move" database only. You don't need to enter all of that information into your analysis database (unless you want to). Also remember to make a printed copy or make a written record of the move (see the previous ChessBase Workshop column).

Once you've recorded your opponent's move, it's time to start researching your reply. In the game we're following, the moves so far are 1.e4 Nf6 which, as you likely know, is Alekhine's Defense. We have a number of different ways to tackle the research task.

Your first step is to designate a database as your reference database. This might be the largest database you have (probably the Big or Mega databases or a large "master" database you've assembled) or it might be a database on your game's specific opening, one which you've been regularly updating. The latter was the case with my correspondence game we've been following; one of my regular club opponents was a diehard Alekhine's Defense player, so I assembled and regularly updated a specific database on that opening. We'll discuss this idea a bit later on.

Right now, though, it's crucial that you designate some relevant database as your reference database. In ChessBase, right-click on that database's icon, select "Properties" from the popup menu, and put a check in the box next to "Reference-DB":


Now you're ready to do some digging. But before you start clicking, take a long look at the position in your game, analyze it, and come up with a candidate move or two on your own. Once you've thought about the position and decided on some candidates, it's time to start researching to verify (or refute) your conclusions.

There are numerous ways you can go about the research task; ChessBase provides many, many tools you can use for this purpose. But two functions of the program really stand out here: the Opening Report and the Opening Tree.

Using the opening report is really simple. After you've designated a large database (or a specialized one on the opening you're playing) as your reference database, open the game from your analysis database and click on the move your opponent just sent you to highlight it. Then go to the Tools menu and select "Opening report". You'll see a bar appear on the screen which shows you the program's progess in compiling the information. When it's finished, you'll see the opening report window appear on your monitor:


Now I'll warn you straight away that it takes some time to get to this point when you're dealing with a database of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of games; even with a really fast computer, you might have time to go visit the coffeepot while the results are compiling. (And this is why I recommend creating a smaller database specific to the opening you're playing -- more on this later; I used such a database to generate the opening report shown in the illustration above).

The opening report contains several sections:


  1. History: This contains links to the earliest and most recent games from the database which contain the position you're researching; you'll also see some bar graphs showing the chronological period(s) in which the opening was relatively popular;
  2. Players: Grandmasters and other strong players who've played the opening in question;
  3. Statistics: Some straight numerical data illustrating the relative success of the opening for White and Black;
  4. Moves and plans: This can be best described with the help of a picture:

    Each of the moving side's major candidate moves will be represented in its own section (as shown in the illustration above), which will provide some statistical data, a recommended reply, links to important games, and the main/critical lines (those most often played as well as those scoring well for the moving player's opponent).
Note that there's no chessplaying engine involved in the creation of the opening report; ChessBase is just "bean counting" and is performing a task that you could conceivably do manually given enough time -- ergo, the use of the opening report is legal in all correspondence leagues and organizations which allow database use as a reference tool.

The opening report is pretty useful as long as you don't follow it blindly; take the "You should play..." recommendations with some salt, because the program is just using statistics to make this determination and, as we've said in this column before, statistics can lie like a cheap rug. Sure, a certain move may win in 80% of the games in the database -- right up until that one game last month in which Shirov busted it flat. So use all of the tools the opening report provides: the game links, the statistics, etc., when you're deciding on a move.

When you create an opening report, ChessBase also creates an opening tree as part of the process. There are a couple of other ways to create an opening tree, and we'll look at these in a later ChessBase Workshop column.

Now I'm not using 1.e4 Nf6 as an illustration of an "ideal spot" to do opening research; most players with any experience will play the natural (and recommended) 2.e5 in reply without ever consulting a database. However, the opening report for the position after 1.e4 Nf6 shows eleven different moves that have been played in reply by White. True, most of them are dogs, but there's enough "meat" to a couple of them (2.Nc3 and 2.d3) to warrant at least a quick look (both score near enough to the 50% mark to at least consider them as possible "surprise" moves). The main focus here is just to show you how to generate an opening report and to illustrate what information is contained within it.

Generating an opening report can be pretty time consuming when using a large database. At some point, you might want to consider creating a smaller database containing only games of the opening you're playing. There are a number of ways to locate the games: opening keys, ECO codes, or just by doing a search for the current position from your game. You've already seen how to create a database earlier in this series of columns, so create a new one to house this smaller subset of your master database. Perform a search (by board position or ECO code); when the search is finished, hit CTRL-A to highlight all of the games in the list. Right-click on any of them and select "Edit" from the popup menu, then the command "Copy" from the submenu. Then you just right-click on the icon for the target database (the new one you just created), select "Edit" and then "Paste". Change this new database to your "Reference database" and the process of creating an opening report will be much more rapid.

The timing of this creation of a smaller database can be a bit tricky if you're playing an opening that's easy to transpose into a different opening; for example, the English Opening can easily transpose into a Queen's Gambit. So be aware that your initial opening might shift to something different; be alert to the possibility and act accordingly.

How do you use the opening report after you've generated it? The main purpose of the report is to provide you with guidelines as to what you should play based on a raw statistical analysis of the games you have in your database. In other words, the opening report is a quick "bean counter" that shows what moves have worked well in the past and what you can expect to see as a reply from your opponent (although the text reads "You should play...", it's really referring in the above illustration to what my opponent should play). Using the above illustration as an example, 2.e5 is displayed as White's best bet. I can look at Kasparov's games from three different stages in his career, as well as some Kramnik and Topolov games. There are some additional links to interesting games, four different main line variations that arise after 2.e5 Nd5, and a "critical line" that I should pay especial attention to -- this is a variation in which Black scores 45%, good enough to make me wary of some counterplay possibilities. Each of these variations has a direct link which will bring up the relevant games.

When you bring up a list using one of these links, look for annotated games (those with the "V" and "C" designations) and/or "medalled" games (those which use multicolored medals in the game list to signify the presence of important or interesting themes). When choosing games to replay, start with these since they will likely contain symbolic (Informant-style) commentary (at least) and not be just raw game scores.

The purpose of the opening report in ChessBase is to help guide you through a large amount of material. It's really a sort of electronic "research assistant" who does the tough collating work for you; it gathers in the information and presents it to you in an organized format.

There's another method you can use to gather opening information, one that's a bit less organized -- the opening tree. We'll look at it in the next ChessBase Workshop. 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.

© 2007, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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