Position tutor

4/2/2006 – Our ChessBase Workshop columnist has been showing off the latest Fritz9 features in recent columns. In the latest edition he spotlights what in his opinion is the greatest new feature of Fritz9. Read about it in the latest edition. Workshop...

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Way back in 1997, the release of Fritz5 saw a new feature called "Explain all moves". The user could load a board position from scratch and activate the feature, or even use the feature "on the fly" while replaying a database game. A new pane would appear in which every legal move for the moving side was displayed (ranked in order of preference based on Fritz' evaluation) along with a brief rudimentary text explanation of the siginificance of each move.

Players expecting a multi-paragraph evaluation of subtle positional motifs were doomed to disappointment (I believe we're still years, if not decades, away from that sort of thing); the comments were, as I said, rudimentary. But the feature could sometimes be surprisingly insightful -- I used it a few times when annotating games for various electronic books for beginners which I've written.

The latest version of the software, Fritz9, has introduced a new feature called the "Position Tutor". While still rudimentary, I find it to be a bit more advanced than the old "Explain all moves" feature (which is still present in the software, by the way). The Position Tutor in effect integrates "Explain all moves" seamlessly into a database game as you replay it. But instead of explaining the candidate moves which might be played in the current position, the Position Tutor provides an explanation for the move which has just been played. And it's an "always on" feature: once you activate the Position Tutor, it stays "on" until you choose to turn it off. You also don't need to have an engine "running" to use it (as is the case with Infinite Analysis mode, for example) or need to have an engine pane displayed; the Position Tutor offers its text commentary at the bottom of the notation pane.

The Position Tutor is easy to activate. Just right-click on an "empty" spot (not on a move) in the notation pane, and select "Show Position Tutor" from the popup menu. A white box will appear at the bottom of the notation pane; this is the place where the Position Tutor will display its commentary. As you step through the moves of a database game the Position Tutor will occasionally display a text message in this white box. Another way to use the Tutor is to have it running while you play a game against Fritz (or another chess engine); the Tutor will offer commentary on why the engine played its last move (and this is a really great beginner's feature).

Now let's take a look at the Position Tutor at work. I've loaded a game from a database and will reproduce the moves here along with any commentary from the Position Tutor. Any of my own commentary will be given in italics.

1.d4 Nf6
Black develops a piece: f6

This is definitely rudimentary, but it's early yet.

2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5
Black threatens to win material: d5xc4

I've provided this graphic to show what the Position Tutor looks like. The narrower white box at the bottom is for the "Show material" function (not used yet, since no material has been captured yet).

4. Nf3 Bg7 5. cxd5
Exchanges material

This is a fairly frequent comment; the Position Tutor will typically alert the user to the fact that the material balance has changed.

5...Nxd5
Takes back material

You'll always see some similar commentary after a capture; henceforth I'll designate these comments with an asterisk.

6. e4
White threatens to win material: e4xd5

6...Nxc3* 7. bxc3
White has a new isolated pawn: a2
Black has a slightly cramped position

Here's where things start to get good. The Position Tutor is doing more than just mentioning captures; it's offered two comments on the positional nature of the board. White does indeed have an isolani on a2 (which may later become a target for Black), while Black has lost some time with his Knight moves: he controls little space on White's half of the board and he needs to get his Queenside pieces out and active.

7...c5 8.Rb1
White moves a Rook to a half-open file

This is exactly the kind of move that the Position Tutor is designed to point out. Instead of pointing out tactical shots (the traditional role of chess computer programs), the Position Tutor has pointed out a positional motif: that of a Rook controlling a half-open file.

8...O-O
Black castles and slightly improves King safety

That seems obvious, except for the word "slightly". Why just "slightly"? A ton of chess books will tell you that the safest position for a castled King is behind three pawns on their original starting squares. But Black advanced one pawn in order to fianchetto his Bishop. Should the Bishop be captured or move off of the long diagonal, that diagonal could become a highway leading straight to the Black King.

9. Be2
Black has a slightly cramped position

That might seem repetitive at first glance, but think about this: the comment appears after White has just moved. The Tutor reminds us that White is developing his forces and that Black needs to think about doing the same.

9...Bg4 10. O-O
White castles and improves King safety

Note the absence of the word "slightly" and then look at the pawns in front of the White King:

I'm impressed by the fact that the Position Tutor recognizes a difference between the White and Black Kingside pawn structures.

10...Bxf3* 11. Bxf3* cxd4* 12. cxd4* Qxd4* 13. Rxb7
White has the pair of Bishops

Another important positional motif that computer programs don't typically mention. But the Position Tutor has spotted it.

13...Nc6 14.Qxd4* Bxd4* 15. Ba3
White threatens to win material: Ba3xe7

15...Rac8 16. Bd1
White places the piece more active: d1
This Tutor comment illustrates two points. The first is that the Bishop is now out from behind the pawn; it still controls the d1-h5 diagonal, but has increased its control to a4-d1. The second point is an indication of why we don't get multi-paragraph Nimzovichian postional instruction "on the fly" from chess programs -- it's (presently) difficult enough to obtain proper syntax and grammar "on the fly". The Position Tutor has a preset vocabulary; while it's obvious that the word "active" is part of that vocabulary, it's also evident that the program isn't able to make a syntax change to the proper "actively". We still have a long way to go before perfecting natural language analysis "on the fly".

From this point we're also going to designate the "threatens to win material" comments with an asterisk.

16...Rb8* 17. Rc7* Rfc8* 18. Rxc8+
Black is in check

18...Rxc8* 19. Ba4 Ne5 20.Bxe7* Nd3
Black increases the pressure on: f2

Alerting us to the dual attack on the f2-pawn from Black's Knight and Bishop.

21. Bh4 Bb6 22. Bg3 Nc1* 23. e5 Rc5
White should exchange pawns

Now there's an interesting comment. The Tutor has recognized White's 4-3 Kingside pawn majority and offers a plan for exploiting it.

24. Re1
White should exchange pawns

24...Nd3*

The program also repeated the "exchange pawns" comment here.

25. Rb1 Nxe5* 26. Bxe5* Rxe5
Opposite colored Bishops appeared

Another salient point recognized by the Position Tutor, since opposite-colored Bishops often tend to lead to drawish positions.

27. Kf1 Rf5
Black pins: Rf5xf2

28. Rb2 1/2-1/2

And there's the Position Tutor in action.

I wrote a prior article on this feature for another website, which prompted an interesting reaction in a message board post, something along the lines of "the text commentary is rudimentary; if it's so good, why did Lopez feel the need to add his own comments?"

My own comments were (and are) added precisely because the Position Tutor is so good. Yes, the text comments are rudimentary -- and they serve an important function: they make the user think about what's being said. As I've indicated, we're a long way from getting extended text commentary "on the fly" from any chess computer program. But look at the comment to Black's twenty-sixth move: "Opposite colored Bishops appeared". That's actually a pretty profound positional observation to be made by any piece of chessplaying software, which have heretofore been very tactically-oriented. While it would certainly be great to get a paragraph or three about why the presence of opposite-colored Bishops is an important feature of the position, I also contend that it's pretty danged impressive that a chess program (whether relying on a pre-programmed chess lexicon/vocabulary or not) would even spot such a positional feature.

And the fact that it's up to the user to determine why such a positional feature is important is, in my opinion, a good thing. If you're going to amount to anything at this game, you're required to think and to learn -- there's no way around it, no "magic bullet" to success -- and I believe that's the precise reason behind chess' attraction for most players. The answers won't just be handed to you, especially not when you're in the midst of a game; at some point you'll need to think things through. As I stated in my reply to that message board post, my favorite teachers in school were the ones who made me think for myself, not the ones who just spat out information and required me to barf it back out at test time. The latter's not "learning", that's just rote memorization/repetition.

So while the Position Tutor doesn't provide exhaustive positional commentary (which would certainly be cool, and is something that I think we'll someday see), it serves what I think is at this time a pretty impressive function. If a user doesn't understand why a text message from the Tutor is important, he or she needs to expand his or her learning until the point is understood.

While some Fritz features (like overnight game analysis) are designed to give you an answer (in this case, a better move or variation), others like the Position Tutor fill a somewhat different but no less crucial role: to provide the signposts needed for the user to ask his own questions, to think about what's going on in the position.

And that's why, in my opinion, the Position Tutor is the most important new feature in Fritz9.

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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