Show Threat

by ChessBase
11/30/2004 – Among ChessBase 9's many new features is a "Show Threat" mode. It's more than just a visual display of an immediate threat, though -- learn why in the latest edition of ChessBase Workshop.

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by Steve Lopez

What's a "threat"?

That seems like an awfully basic question. But think about it for a moment. In chess, what constitutes a "threat"? Sure, most of us intuitively understand the concept, but how many of us can define it in concrete terms?

At its heart, a "threat" is simply what a chessplayer would do if he was allowed to make two moves in a row. It's devilishly simple. And it leads straight to a workable definition for the term "tactic" -- a "tactic" can be (but isn't necessarily always) a move that creates two or more simultaneous threats.

Let's look at some examples. White advances a pawn to fork two Black pieces (let's say a Knight and Rook). There are two simultaneous threats: the pawn threatens to capture either the Knight or Rook. It's "pick your poison" for Black: he'll lose one piece or the other. Even more devastating would be a Black Knight which, after moving, forks the White King and Queen. The threat is to capture the Queen (earning an overwhelming advantage in material) or to "capture" the King (thus ending the game). What makes this fork so devastating when compared to the previously-described pawn fork is White's complete lack of choice in the matter. The pawn fork allowed the threatened player to choose which piece to lose. But the Knight fork with check eliminates any "free will" for White; the rules of the game state that White must get out of check if possible, so his hands are tied and he must lose his Queen.

More importantly, we can even rewind the play back a move to the White move immediately before Black's Knight move; in that position, Black threatens to play the Knight fork, so there's still time for White to, say, move his King and eliminate the fork possibility.

That kind of perception is crucially important for a chessplayer to develop. Instead of waiting for his opponent to drop the bomb by playing the Knight fork, White can preempt the whole scenario -- but only if he spots Black's threat to play a Knight fork in time.

In my opinion, that sort of "preemptive vision" is one of the most important skills a chessplayer can develop. And it's one of the easiest to hone, too: the first step is to get into the habit of asking yourself "Why did he play that?" after each of your opponent's moves.

In a previous article (May 9, 1999, for those players keeping score at home) I told the story of a "training game" I played against a chess beginner. My opponent was usually stumped for a move until I explained the purpose of my prior move. My opponent was then able to almost instantly snap off a threat-stopping move each time. All it took was a little guidance.

One of the ways you can develop your own skills in spotting threats is to use the various "Show threat" features included in chess software programs. The new ChessBase 9 has added some new "threat" features which are a valuable resource to players who are interested in developing their own "board vision". These are especially useful when coupled with the previous (and possibly little-known) threat features which were already a part of ChessBase's engine analysis.

We'll first take a look at the new features in CB9. The two commands you'll need to know are "Threat as Arrow" and "Create Threat as Arrow". You can activate these by going to the Help menu and toggling them "on" (you can tell if these features are "on" by the presence of a check to the left of the command). If you'd like to "fine-tune" these features, right-click on the background behind the chessboard (in a Game window) and select "Options" from the popup menu. Then click the "Engines" tab to get the following display:

Look at the "Threats" section of this dialogue. The two check boxes do the same thing as the Help menu toggles. But you'll also notice a slider to the right of these boxes. ChessBase 9 contains an internal chess engine (independent of any "extra" engines, such as Fritz) which can automatically generate colored arrows on the board to display threats in a given position. The slider controls how long the engine will ponder a given position (and thus will affect the quality of the move displayed); the longer the engine "thinks", the better the move it displays. Moving the slider to the right increases the time the engine will use, while moving it to the left decreases the time required. Moving it to the right will cause CB9 to show better moves but at the cost of an increased time requirement (as with all things in life, you must give in order to get).

So now we know how to work the thing. But what does it do? Let's see the feature work in practice using a very basic example. Here's a position from the game McDonnell-Labourdonnais, London 1834. Black has just played 19...Bxf3:

Now let's switch "Threat as Arrow" on and see how the board appears:

CB9 has drawn an orange arrow to illustrate the threat. If Black could make two moves in a row, his next move would be 20...Bxd1, capturing the Queen. So it's obviously White's task to prevent this. The natural move is 20.Bxf3 (which is, in fact, what McDonnell played).

We can deduce from this that "Threat as Arrow" makes CB9 display the immediate "if the player could make two moves in a row" threat. The second component to the new threat feature is "Create Threat as Arrow". This is similar to the "rewind" we were previously talking about: the move that precedes the actual threat move -- i.e. the move that sets up the conditions for the threat move to be played. Switching it "on", we see the following:

We now see a second (blue) arrow on the board, indicating the White move Bxf3. OK, this one's a bit less obvious and more difficult to figure out. What's CB9 telling us about the position?

Obviously, White can stop Black's threat by playing Bxf3 but that's not the point of the blue arrow in the display. Let's go back to our definition of a threat: what a player would do if he could make two moves in a row. If White could make another move immediately after playing Bxf3, what could he do that creates a threat?

It's not super-obvious, but the move Bg4 occurs to me. From g4, the White Bishop threatens to capture the f5-Rook -- and if the Rook moves, White wins a pawn with Bxe6. I'll tell you true: I'd never have considered this had I not seen that little blue arrow.

In summation, "Threat as Arrow" displays an orange arrow which illustrates an immediate threat. "Create Threat as Arrow" displays a blue arrow which illustrates a move which creates the possibility of a threat on the player's next move following.

I mentioned another "threat" feature in CB9 using external engines. This feature has been kicking around for the last couple of versions of ChessBase and I'll bet that not one CB user in ten makes use of it. That's why I'm going to show it to you now.

Start an engine (such as Fritz or Crafty) in ChessBase. You'll get this display (which should be familiar to most ChessBase users):

This is, of course, the Engine Analysis pane which in this case shows that White's best move is the aforementioned 20.Bxf3. But watch what happens after we hit the X key on the keyboard:

Whoa! Check it out! Fritz now thinks that it's Black's turn to move again and is displaying what Black would do if he could make a second move in a row. And you know what that means: Fritz is showing us Black's threat.

This is some powerful stuff. You can fire up an engine and just let it run; as you step move by move through the game, the chess engine will continuously show you the best move it finds in each position -- and you just hit X when you want to see any possible threats. (And note, by the way, that you can always tell when the engine is running in "Show threat" mode because the panel displaying the engine's name will have a red tint to it). When you want to go back to the normal engine analysis mode, hit the X key again or just step to the next move: the engine will reset back to normal analysis mode when you advance to a new position.

With these two threat modes (the engine pane and the visual display) you'll always be able to see any serious threat in a given position (and the "threat of a threat" in the case of the blue arrow). This will help you to develop your own ability to spot threats. It can also help you to understand why a chess engine recommends a particular move. When you're running an engine in normal analysis mode, you'll often find yourself wondering why the engine recommends a particular move as best. Hitting X to display a possible threat can give you valuable clues as to why the engine is recommending a certain course of action.

Until next week, have fun!

© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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