Four ChessBase Disks

8/28/2006 – ChessBase has been releasing new training materials and chess engines at a furious clip. You'll find previews of "Alapin Sicilian System", "Chess Endgames 1", "Opening Repertoire for Black", and the Zapchess playing engine in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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A couple of months ago I wrote a short set of previews of three ChessBase training disks. They've still not appeared on the site yet (as I write this) so I've not yet received any comments indicating how well (or how poorly) my "short form" style of previewing disks has been received. In the interim, however, has started running disk reviews written by third parties (people not connected with the company). I'm actually pretty happy to see these appear on the site. Despite the fact that I've repeatedly stated, here and on chess message boards, that my previews are exactly that – a look at what's contained on the disks, as well as a few of my own impressions – and aren't intended to be taken in any way as impartial "reviews", there are still a few people who just don't get the clear (and not especially subtle) distinction.

So I welcome the third-party reviews with open arms. If you want to read in-depth reviews of a ChessBase disk, I encourage you to check out these third-party reviews (as well as the numerous others which typically appear all over the Internet). If you want a detailed manifest of what's on a particular disk, as well as a few short impressions of the contents, I'm your man. And since I've traditionally tended to take a horrendous amount of flak over my longer form previews, I intend to stick with my new "short form" format unless future events dictate otherwise. I do still intend to write longer previews (such as my preview of the Budapest Defense training CD) from time to time, but the "short form" will stick around for a while.

With that in mind, onward...

Title: Zapchess chess engine
Programmer: Anthony Cozzie
Physical format: DVD

Disk contents: Two new Zapchess engines which run within the ChessProgram 9 GUI (meaning that the program contains the same features as Fritz9); specialized Zapchess opening book, tuned to the playing style and preferences of the chess engines, and containing 1,247,935 unique positions; database of more than one million unannotated games (the same as the one in Fritz9); program manual and Playchess server manual, both in PDF format on the DVD; twenty-four page ChessProgram 9 manual in printed booklet format.

Comments: Everyone who follows computer chess already knows that the Zappa chess engine won the 2005 World Computer Chess Championship. Zapchess is the commercial version of Zappa. Two versions of the Zappa engine are included with the DVD: the "Reykjavik" version is the same as that which won the world championship, while the "Paderborn" version is a newer engine which contains recent refinements by the programmer. Zapchess is, at its core, a throwback to an earlier engine design philosophy. While chess engines over the last six or eight years have generally moved to a more "knowledge" based approach (the engine "understands" more chess theory, particularly in the area of positional chess), Zapchess still relies somewhat on speed for its playing strength. Consequently, Zapchess is extremely well-suited for faster computers, especially multi-processor machines. However, programmer Anthony Cozzie has also built a significant amount of chess knowledge into the engines, making Zapchess an interesting hybrid of the two design approaches. While Cozzie still stresses the importance of CPU speed, he's also merged this design philosophy with the knowledge-based approach. This makes Zapchess unique among the current crop of chess engines which rely much more on knowledge content than pure unbridled speed of calculation and evaluation.

Title: Sicilian Alapin System
Author: Dorian Rogozenko
Physical format: CD

Disk contents: Main instructional and reference database containing more than 75,000 games (over 1600 of which are annotated, 500 of them by the author) current through the end of the year 2005 and fifty-four instructional texts; specialized Alapin opening keys attached to the main database; training database of forty games, each of which contains timed training questions designed to test how well you've learned the material on the disk; Alapin opening book (usable for statistical research or as an alternative opening book for the Fritz family of playing programs), containing 1,134,152 unique positions (and compiled from the annotated selection of games in the main database); ChessBase Reader program, making the disk a standalone product (no additional ChessBase software is required).

Comments: The Alapin Sicilian has traditionally been popular with players of the White pieces who wish to sidestep the tangled web of Sicilian opening theory (and its myriad variations) while avoiding dicier gambit lines like the Smith-Morra; 1.e4 c5 2.c3 tends to put the ball in White's court and disallows many of Black's traditional Sicilian options. While cutting down significantly on White's workload, the Alapin still requires White to know what he's doing. Rogozenko provides this knowledge to the potential Alapin player in this instructional training CD (in the traditional text-based [as opposed to video instruction] ChessBase CD format). In short, you read the texts in order and follow the links provided to replay the important example games selected by the author (as well as to game selections linked by opening key). The author is big on explanation, both in the instructional texts and in brief comments inserted in the games as annotations, offering ideas in a clear manner. Rogozenko, in his introduction, recommends this CD for players rated 2000-2500 Elo, but I'm rated considerably lower and had no trouble understanding the presentation and the ideas expressed; consequently I'm assuming that he makes a higher-level recommendation due to the sheer volume of material covered in the 50+ instructional texts dealing with specific individual variations. Sicilian Alapin System is certainly comprehensive; the disk provides you with the tools you need to successfully play this opening (or play against it, since ideas for Black aren't neglected).

Title: Opening Repertoire for Black
Author: Alexander Bangiev
Physical format: CD

Disk contents: "Theory" database containing 191 entries (six introductory texts, 149 annotated "survey" games explaining ideas in each variation, and the balance being annotated games from tournament play); reference database of more than 103,000 games, 1,420 of which are annotated); "training" database containing 498 opening "tabia" – starting variations given as one game, with analysis of the next several moves provided in the immediately-following game, and which also serve to be loaded into the Fritz family of playing programs, allowing you to begin several moves into a game, bypassing memorized opening lines in favor of "instant middlegame training"; ChessBase Reader program, making the disk a standalone product (no additional ChessBase software is required).

Comments: Anyone who follows Interrant message boards (and who hasn't been living in a cave for the last couple of years) should already be familiar with the controversy surrounding Bangiev's Squares Strategy series of instructional disks. That series is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Kmoch's work, in that a player is required to learn a new system of terminology in order to make use of the CDs. While not quite a "firestorm", the approach has generated a lively amount of debate: users either love or hate the Squares Strategy series. Opening Repertoire for Black follows suit; while the alternative terminology method isn't quite as extensive as that used in Squares Strategy, the reader is still required to learn Bangiev's verbal and symbolic "shorthand" for pointing out key ideas and strategic themes. Bangiev's approach to presenting a repertoire is based on piece/pawn structures rather than traditional named/numbered opening variations; instead of teaching ideas based on a specific opening variation, Bangiev bases his instruction on teaching how to play the early middlegames that arise from specific piece and pawn configurations. While I've personally known many strong chessplayers who advocate this approach (in that it doesn't matter how you reached a specific opening setup [i.e. the exact move order], you need to know how to play it once you reach it), it also requires an adjustment on the part of the average chessplayer: you're not going to be concerned with specific variations so much as you are specific tabia (or opening setups). Unfortunately, this also requires an author to find a way to structure and systematize these tabia; Bangiev isn't "reinventing the wheel" here, so much as he's inventing a new means of transportation. Here's the downside: beginning or low-intermediate chessplayers (who are, after all, usually the ones in search of repertoire suggestions – more advanced players have typically developed their own opening repertoires) aren't likely to wish to go to the extra effort involved in understanding an unfamiliar classification system (they're usually still struggling with ECO codes) and a "shorthand" system of relating ideas (they find the ideas themselves to be hard enough without having to learn to "translate" the shorthand descriptions into [grammatical] concrete ideas. Consequently (and this won't make me too popular with my employers), I have to say that Opening Repertoire for Black misses its target audience by a country mile; players struggling with the development of a personal repertoire might be willing to learn either a new classification system or a new form of verbal shorthand to reach their goal, but not both. And that's a crying shame – this is only the second work I've seen (both of them in electronic format; I've never seen this attempted in print) to use what I believe to be an important part of opening preparation (maybe the most important part): linking opening variations to middlegame ideas through the use of related piece and pawn structures reached via seemingly unrelated openings (in other words, knowing how to proceed in the middlegame based on what's actually on the board, rather than through the move order used to reach that position). Bangiev's a great teacher; it's too bad that he's so engaged with redefining the way chess instructional materials are written that his message is becoming increasingly lost in the presentation.

Title: Chess Endgames 1: Basic Knowledge for Beginners
Author: Karsten Mueller
Physical format: DVD

Disk contents: Database containing thirty-seven instructional videos, running about 5.5 hours total; ChessBase Reader program, making the disk a standalone product (no additional ChessBase software is required).

Comments: "Here Steve goes with the generalizations again", I can already hear you groaning. But this one's pretty spot-on: chessplayers traditionally view studying the endgame much as children see eating their veggies: regrettable and unpleasant, rather than important and necessary. The problem is that, unless you have a dad like Rustam Kamsky, nobody's standing behind you cracking a proverbial whip when it comes to your chess studies – if it ain't fun, you ain't doing it, no way, no how, period. Consequently we (yes, I said "we", meaning you and I) tend to blow off working on our endgames in favor of doing tactical puzzles and messing around with new opening variations. And the net result is that we tend to stink at the endgame. Karsten Mueller has some serious plans to change this sorry fact with a planned series of instructional video DVDs on the chess endings. The first in the series is Chess Endgames 1: Basic Knowledge for Beginners, which contains more than five hours of instructional video content. Although the videos are presented in the Chess Media System format (the video instruction is accompanied by your on-screen chessboard acting as the instructor's "wallboard", with the pieces on the board [and the highlighted move in the Notation pane] moving and reacting in tandem with his spoken commentary), we're somewhat curiously told in the DVD's text intro to keep the Notation pane closed. After you've watched a video or two you'll know why: Mueller frequently asks us to find the best move in a position, and having the Notation pane visible will often give away the answer. A really cool aspect to this DVD is the fact that no prior endgame knowledge is assumed on the part of the viewer – all you need to know is how the pieces move – so the DVD is a perfect introduction to the endgame for beginning players, as well as a great refresher course for us old chess club warhorses. I'll tell you straight up: I've been kicking around this game for a long time but even I learned a couple of things from the handful of segments I watched on this DVD. Mueller presents his instruction in a clear, no-nonsense style which anyone (at least anyone who knows how the pieces move) can understand. I highly recommend Chess Endgames 1: Basic Knowledge for Beginners, both for beginning players who want an endgame "crash course" and for intermediates who want an excellent refresher on basic endgame technique. I'm looking forward to additional volumes in this series.

Until next week, 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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