Double-checking your opening

4/6/2005 – ChessBase Workshop often concentrates on a single program feature in each column. In the latest edition, you'll learn how to combine multiple program features to "double-check" and research your opening choices.

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Double-checking your opening

by Steve Lopez

Contrary to the impression that this column might have provided over the last few weeks, I do get e-mails about topics other than ChessBase Workshop per se. These typically consist of requests to cover this feature or that, or for some articles on how to combine the features found in the variety of programs ChessBase offers. I find the latter requests pretty interesting; I do have a tendency toward the "narrow focus" of a single feature at a time without talking about how to link these together. Thinking about this has inspired me to write a short series in which we're going to explore one of these larger topics, albeit one involving a fairly simple thing: double-checking your opening play in a specific game.

Why the opening? Chess games aren't typically won or lost in the opening; otherwise all we'd be playing would be twenty-move miniatures. All your choice of opening really needs to do is get you into a comfortable, playable middlegame. So why (we ask again) are we going to talk about the opening?

Let's face it -- many chessplayers are pretty hung up on the opening; that's why books on openings far outsell books on any other aspect of the game. And it's pretty easy to spot opening mistakes: if it wasn't "book", it was possibly wrong (in fact, that's the whole thesis of this short series which you're presently reading).

But go back a couple of paragraphs and reread the purpose of the opening: to get you into a comfortable, playable middlegame. If you're the one who's going "out of book" by playing something which violates the principles and spirit of a particular opening, you might not be getting the kind of middlegame you want. So it's useful to try to spot the places in which you're varying from known theory and try to correct these kinds of errors.

There are a few ways to do this by using ChessBase and the Fritz "family" of playing programs. We're going to look at some of them in this article (and the next). There are a couple of common tools which you'll need before we begin as well as a few procedures to follow.

The tools are these: an opening book and a big honkin' database. For the purpose of these articles I'll be using Powerbook 2005 as the opening book and Mega Database 2005 for my master database. Note that you can create your own opening book; in fact, it might even be preferable to do so if you have a large data pool (i.e. plenty of database games). I'm not going to cover the step-by-step procedure on how to "homebrew" an opening book since I've covered that topic at length previously (in my article for March 4, 2001); the important thing to understand is that you can do a database search for all the games of a specific opening and then create an opening book from those games.

Once you've decided on an opening book and database to use as reference material, the next step is to "point" ChessBase 9 to them and then "link" the two together. This is pretty easy to do. Fire up ChessBase 9 and take a look at the main database window; find the icon for the database you want to use as a reference source. Right-click on that database's icon and select "Properties" from the popup menu. You'll see a dialogue which looks like this:

There are two check boxes above the "Help" button; the upper box says "Reference-DB". Click on this box to check it and then click "OK". You've just designated this database as your "reference database" -- and there are a whole lot of ChessBase 9 features which require such a designation to be made in order for them to work. Note that designating a database as the reference database isn't a permanent distinction; you can always pick a different database as the reference database at a later time. But you do need to understand that you can have only one reference database at a time -- if you select another database as the "Reference-DB" you transfer that designation from your former reference database to the new one you've just selected.

Next find the icon for the opening book you've chosen to use as your main opening book. Right-click on its icon and select "Properties" from the popup menu to get the following dialogue:

In this dialogue you'll see just one check box above the "Help" button: "Default book". Put a check in this box and click "OK". This opening book is now your "reference" book. The cool part about selecting a database and an opening book as your references is that there are some features which "link" the two together, and we'll talk about those after a bit.

We're going to look at two main ways to identify where you might have gone off-track with your choice of opening moves. The above steps were preliminaries for the more involved (but more informational -- and consequently more rewarding) way. But let's look first at the "lazy man's way" of doing it: we'll use Fritz' game analysis features to point us to where one player or the other went off the beaten path.

Fire up Fritz (or any of its related playing programs). Make sure you have the opening book loaded which you want to use (File/Open/Openings book). Next hit F12 to go to the database/game list screen. Go to File/Open/Database and load the database which contains your game which you want to study. Single-click on the game in the list to highlight it (and for demonstration purposes we're going to use a 1994 French correspondence game between Lambert and Hagnere). Go to the Tools menu, select "Analysis", and then "Blundercheck" from the submenu:

We won't cover this dialogue in detail here -- it was explained in my column for March 19, 2000 (available elsewhere on this site). We need to note here, though, that you do have a couple of different ways to proceed here depending on what kind of information you're after. If you want complete game information you'll probably want to have your chess engine do a complete game analysis, and that's best accomplished as an overnight process (since it'll tie your machine up for several hours) -- that's described in the previous article I just mentioned. On the other hand if all you want is a "quick and dirty" pointer to the spot at which one player or the other left established opening theory behind and went "out of book", you can do this pretty quickly. Just set the "Time" parameter to some ridiculously low number (such as 2 seconds) and let the analysis function rip. In just a minute or three you'll have a result which looks something like this:

Forget about Fritz' analysis and variations for those later four moves; that's just a very cursory analysis and not terribly valuable given the extremely low "Time" setting we used. What we're really after here is the text annotation after Black's twelfth move: "last book move". What this is telling us is that Black was the last player to play an opening move which is recognized as "established" theory (at least as far as the currently-loaded opening book is concerned). White veered away from known opening theory with his thirteenth move.

Of course we're looking at a game played by two other people here. But if you're working with one of your own games, you're looking to see which player steered away from known theory first. Let's say that you were Black in this game. Your opponent was the first to vary and that's great (in a way) because you don't have to worry about what the proper "book" response was -- he went out of book first, so there's no established rejoinder. This is a case in which a full overnight analysis (with a more reasonable "Time" parameter) is more valuable than this "quick and dirty" method, because you'll be able to see what Fritz (or another chess engine) thinks of your reply to White's move thirteen.

But let's say that you were playing the White pieces instead. It was you who varied from established theory first, so it's up to you to do a bit of digging to see what you should have played at this point. In the main game (chessboard) screen, click on Black's twelfth move (the "last book move") to highlight it and then click the "Openings book" tab:

This shows the "known" White responses to Black's twelfth move (i.e. the established "book" moves). There's not a lot to work with here: the position after Black's twelfth has only appeared twice in top-level practice. But we can see that at least one alternative move (13.e6) worked in a prior game.

Now there are some serious pitfalls with this approach. It doesn't really tell you whether or not 13.Nxd5 was a bad move or whether or not 13.e6 was all that great. The only way to really determine the merits of the moves would be to actually play through the games to see what happens next (maybe the wins are more the result of Black's poor play rather than White's choice of moves) -- and, most importantly, to use your noodle to figure out why these moves are good or bad.

So we can already see that there's no "quick fix" for answering the question of why a non-book move might be good or bad. All we're really doing is identifying the point at which the variance occurred.

The ChessBase program will allow us to squeeze out some additional information here -- and we'll look at those techniques in the next ChessBase Workshop. Until then, have fun!


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


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