More letters...

7/25/2006 – Our Workshop columnist Steve Lopez again reaches into the mailbag. This time the topics include the fundamental difference between chess playing and chess database software, adding moves to opening books, Internet ethics, and some useful Spanish phrases -- all in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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Let's check the Inbox again; my replies will be italicized.


I’ve read your column on ChessBase and found it interesting but you expert fellows are way ahead of me when it comes to understanding the differences between all these software programs and being able to select one best for our use. For example, I’d like your honest opinion on a more fundamental question: should an expert level person (USCF 1976 last rating) like myself choose a simple player program like the current Fritz 9 or Shredder as a learning tool for game analysis and training to improve or is it really better to buy one of those big package specialized training packages like ChessBase or Chess Assistant? For example, I’ve had Fritz 6.0 for some time and, although it’s a strong program, it’s really lousy in analyzing and annotating my games to point out real errors/blunders or weak moves to be of much help. Its analysis is of a very general nature (maybe for weaker players or general public) like "...d4 controls the c5 square..." or "the knight moves to free the square for...", and often times shows lines that are clearly not better or flat misses weak moves (shown to be weak in textbook annotations like from Alekhine and many other humans).

So for a one program person like me (i.e., not an active tournament player or master/grandmaster), would something like Fritz 9 be good enough for accurate analysis of my games and for training, or would it really be much better for that objective to pay the extra cost of a Chess Assistant or ChessBase?? So what’s your recommendation/opinion on this fundamental question for most of us who still have a desire to improve (as well as play computers)?? Thanks

John Hicks

You bring up a number of interesting points, John, many of which could be (and have been) topics for complete columns. So I'll try to answer and pop in a link when it's useful.

First of all, since you said you're a "one program person" but also said you like to play against computers, I need to point out that ChessBase and Chess Assistant are database programs and not playing programs. You don't play chess in CB/CA; you store millions of games and can use advanced (but still easy to use) search functions to bring up the games you want to replay, and then play them out on the onscreen chessboard. The database function in Fritz is a rudimentary version of the complete capabilities of ChessBase.

In regard to your comments about Fritz' text annotations' suitability for advanced players, I heartily recommend that you try Blundercheck mode instead of Full analysis mode when having Fritz annotate your games. I think you'll find the output more suitable for someone at your level of play. You can read more about it here.

My only response to the comment comparing Fritz' analysis to the recommendations of players like Alekhine is that you might be setting the time per move to too short a value. Obviously, I have no way to know what settings you're using. But, as I wrote in an extensive recent piece for another website, shorter analysis times lead to more cursory (i.e. "shallow") analysis. I've spoken to and corresponded with numerous grandmasters who use Fritz (and its "sister" engines) for analysis and while they confirm that a computer engine's analysis isn't always "best", they are frequently amazed by Fritz' recommendations and say that the program very often "sees" better things that they missed.

Since you're indicating that your primary goal is analysis of your own games, Fritz/Shredder/etc. are your only options since ChessBase doesn't play or analyze games; CB is primarily a data storage and retrieval tool. However, should you later find that you want tons of information at your fingertips (for doing opening preparation, middlegame/endgame research, or just to be able to organize and play through the tons of downloadable games available online), ChessBase might be an option for your future studies.

Thanks for writing! -- SL

I’ve enjoyed your columns, writings and ranting for years now. I have submitted the first 2 questions in the past am I am adding a 3rd.

I would be interested in your "all-knowing" insight on the following topics:

1) I play occasionally on the ChessBase server (I have the rating of an insect) and often notice a message stating that so-and-so has been found guilty of using computer software and has lost his rating as a result, or something along those lines. I was just curious, how does ChessBase know if a person is using a computer?

2) I’ve been pushing wood, plastic and mice (mouses? meece?) for over 30 years now. The first half of my sad addiction involved exclusive interaction with actual pieces in front of actual humans (OTB), since the internet and decent computer software had not been invented yet. I embraced computer and internet chess early and have been a screen-slave for a considerable time now. I find that I play much worse when viewing a 2D display on a computer screen that OTB. Is this a common phenomenon? Is it just me or do other people find the same.? Are there any statistics which support a theory that the brain has an easier time visualizing actual, real 3D? Is there any evidence to suggest that it depends on what you are used to or what you started with? This seems like a timely topic worthy of exploration. I know some younger players who play computer and internet chess exclusively and feel disoriented when sitting in front of a real set.

3) An internet chess message board seems very conspicuous by it’s absence on the ChessBase site. Why do you think this is not offered?

David Ridge

I'm far from "all knowing": I don't know jack. And I damn sure didn't see Jack running out of that liquor store with a bag in his hand.

Your e-mail's subject line was "Three Questions" which made me smile by putting me in mind of an awesome Kieran Kane song called "Four Questions". Reading your message, I realize that his stumpers ("Who is she with? What is she doing? Where is she now? And why did she go?") are much easier to answer than a couple of yours.

1) I don't have much "inside information" on this. I do know that no spyware is involved (as is the case with some other chess sites). I imagine it's a case of reproducability of the moves (it's not like Playchess doesn't have any chess engines at their disposal with which to test this -- wink, wink) coupled with a pattern of repeat behavior. If you get multiple complaints about a specific player account and you can reproduce the moves over and over using a chess engine, it becomes the old "if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck" scenario. But that's just conjecture on my part.

2) I don't have any scientific evidence to offer -- all I have is personal experience. I've talked to hundred (if not thousands) of chessplayers over the years and have seen this comment repeatedly. Quite a few players say they have difficulty in the area of the "2D/3D transfer" you've mentioned. Their solution? Set up a real 3D board on their desk beside their monitor when they're working with ChessBase or Fritz and make the moves on both their monitor and on their actual chessboard. I've done this myself (even though I don't have any serious problems with "real" chess vs. 2D computer chess, just as I have no problems with "real" poker vs. the virtual version -- the real battle during both is in your head, not on the display), and I can tell you that I remember games during which I had a real board set up much more vividly than I do the games I've played strictly on a 2D monitor.

So I'm sure there's more to this than merely a "personal preference" thing, but until chess becomes a 3D virtual reality pasttime (complete with VR helmets and gloves), I think the solution I've offered above is the only workable answer for players who have problems making the 2D/3D switch.

3) I have no idea what the official reason might be. But I'll share this with you. I think any major commercial company which offers a public message board on the Internet is out of its corporate mind. The idea of "online journalistic ethics" is laughable. People say anything and everything they want online; distance and anonymity assure this. Things are said online every day, every minute, that would be guaranteed to start a brawl if they were uttered face to face in just about any real-life setting (although bars and taverns spring immediately to mind).

I participate in very few online chess message boards, primarily because I don't want to make answering software questions a 24/7 pursuit. But the secondary reason is the amount of complete B.S. that gets hurled around on them -- and if you're affiliated with a commercial company, that just puts a huge bullseye on your back (witness the comments hurled at Bookup's Mike Leahy in I've actually been asked by several of my chess employers over the years to not participate in online discussion groups for this reason.

I won't go into an extensive dissertation on the subject (I've published rants about this topic elsewhere before), but I'm an individual (not a "corporate representative") and I've had my share of flamers and Netstalkers over the years; for some people (complete "no lifers", I imagine), this sort of behavior is easy and fun. Here's a true story for you, though. I do participate in (and moderate) one online message board hosted by a chess book/software vendor. Awhile back we noticed a couple of posters repeatedly and viciously slagging off the host company in the public forum, and it didn't take a major amount of online sleuthing to discover that the posters were working for a competing company.

It's also been successfully argued in court that a website host or message board provider is legally responsible for all content, regardless of who posted or provided it. A few years ago some poor slob was successfully sued because his "Links" page contained a link leading to a site which a vistor found objectionable, even though the original linker was in no way responsible for that third party's content. Although this has seldom occurred in practice, it's certainly possible.

All of constitues just my opinion and my observations and in no way should be misconstrued as an "official statement from ChessBase" and should likewise not be quoted or used in any capacity without the permission of the Commisioner of Baseball.

(But this also explains why I don't reply to e-mails asking me my opinion of competitor's practices or other controversies in the chess world. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer by a longshot, but I'm smarter than that.)

Thanks for an interesting e-mail! -- SL

Your are doing a very good job to the chess fans (please, pardon my english writing. I speak spanish all day).

I use chess as a way of getting rid of ...stress. But I am just a hobby player, so I try to play with low level playing engines (I own Hiarcs 9, but I also have Fritz 7).

I found spooky 2.7 good enough to practice, so I use my own brain (I keep analyzing games, like those of San Luis and now Linares, using ChessBase 8 instead Fritz or Hiarcs. I have found ChessBase 8 better for this because I do not have to spend time watching the program doing those full or blunder analysis. Besides, I can follow any move better and see how good it was) from time to time.

The other day I played against spooky this (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 **Nb4**) and I had to stop here after this bandit engine played the last move. Why? I have several books (Nick De Firmian’s Chess Opening the Easy Way; Nunn’s Chess Opening; Luis Palau’s Tratado complete de apertures; etc.) and none of them had that variation.

I looked at Mega Database 2004 and founded 10 games but this database stop after (6.d6 Nfd5) with only 2 games for the next 7th move (my move); and none of them was 7.d3, which I played guessing.

Therefore, after one month I got PowerBook 2003. I came home very happy. I thought, as Steve Lopez wrote in April 15,2001, that PowerBooks were good at having openings that we can not find in any program like Fritz 7 or Hiarcs 9. But I almost cry when PowerBook 2003 DO NOT even have the reply of Spooky (5...Nb4). There is no way to continue to analyze any thing else because there is no way to go further. Why this happen? Have not you thought of having a PowerBook with all kind of crazy (or not) replies, SO we can see that they are unfounded or not good? Why the program stop so early and it does not say anything about 5...Nb4?

I believe the Powerbooks should show all possible replies, although they are not backed up by any game; and the program should states that those variations are not good or not played good enough to analyze.

WHAT can we do about this failures? I know you try hard to give us the best, perhaps this is a good point to consider by you.

With my very best regards
Carlos Vargas Vidal

Thanks for writing! I'll start by saying that your English is fine, sir, far better than my Spanish (the only other language I ever attempted). Many years have passed since then and my limited Spanish has fallen into rusty disuse. All I can remember are the phrases personally useful to me: "Cerveza frio, por favor" and "Cual es tu telephono, senorita?" Oh, and maybe a few others that a lady friend introduced to me last fall (though I'm still trying to discover the translation of Willie Nelson's phrase "Maria, shut up and kiss me" -- she won't tell me that one for some odd reason).

There's plenty to comment on here. First I commend you for your preference for using your brain for analysis instead of using a chess engine as a crutch; you'll find me saying this again and again in my past columns and I'm sure I'll keep flogging that one in the future. I'm also delighted by your use of "on-the-fly" engine analysis, which I wrote about back in 2000.

I'm not familiar with the chess engine Spooky (though the name sounds as cool as all get out) but I'm guessing from your message that the engine/program might have been playing without the benefit of an opening book, which would explain the oddball move ...Nb4. And though I haven't run a database check on it, the move just looks fishy and I sincerely doubt it's been played in too many (if any) high-level games. I mean, come on! It just loses a couple of tempi after something like the natural c2-c3 runs it off (to a bad square to boot!). So that's why it's not in Powerbook, which contains moves from actual tournament and match practice.

However, if you want to add the move yourself, that's easy to do. Just display the Powerbook (by clicking on the "Openings book" tab at the top of the Notation pane). Then right-click in the book's pane and select "Allow move adding" from the popup menu. Any move you make on the board will now be added to the Powerbook. Just be sure to repeat the process when you're finished adding moves to turn move adding off again.

Powerbook probably won't ever show all possible moves; it's designed around the ones played by higher-rated players in actual competition. And an opening book showing all possible moves, while not impossible, would be horribly difficult to produce as well as danged unwieldy. It would be huge; it would probably require more than one DVD to store the infernal thing. -- SL

Here's an excerpt from a longer e-mail:

IM Larry Kaufman...asked me how my "rated" match against Fritz 8 was coming along. When I returned home, I looked up the statistics and emailed results...I "fat fingered" my mouse and somehow altered the windows (panes) that I had become accoustomed to. I read the Fritz 8 manual quickly and decided that "Revert to factory settings" was what I wanted to do to restore my old settings. Apparently, I did the wrong thing. I should have I should have followed the instruction for "Present layout" and selected "standard layout." Now, when I want to play a "rated" game against Fritz 8, the initial screen comes up without any memory of my previous 1312 games. Is there any way that I can enter my previous results on the initial screen that comes up when I want to play a "rated" game?

Anyway these results are not that important, but if I can restore the old statistics, I would appreciate knowning what must be done.

Denis Strenzwilk

Sorry, Denis, no joy here. "Revert to factory settings" wipes out the info in all .ini and other files that contain user preferences and prior results such as Rated game with no way to retrieve them. If it's any consolation (read: cold comfort), I did the exact same thing with one of my poker programs a few weeks ago, trying to get the software to load a bit faster, and destroyed my prior tournament results.

Allowing the user to manually enter prior results would be a lifesaver in situations like yours, but if something can be misused, it's dead certain that it will be. A user could conceivably use such a feature to artificially jack up his rating (though I can't see any possible practical benefit here. Rated game is simply a tool to gauge one's progress, and any "bragging rights" it might confer are just gravy).

For future reference though, try saving your preferred layout in case of a future mouse slip such as you described. Go to the Window menu, select "Save", and give your layout a unique name. If you ever bollix up the screen again, you just go to Window/Load and select the layout you've previously saved. In fact, you can save multiple layouts for various displays and purposes; I have about a dozen that I switch between depending on what I'm doing with the program. -- SL

More to come. 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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