The essentials

1/11/2008 – ChessBase Workshop columnist Steve Lopez has often mentioned "the essentials" – ChessBase products that he finds himself unable to do without. But he's never provided us with a comprehensive list of said essentials – until now. You'll find his list in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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Quite a while back (I think it was as much as two or three years ago) in a disk preview I wrote for ChessBase Workshop, I referred to a particular product as "one of the essentials" -- ChessBase products that I can't do without come hell or high water. Since that time I've received dozens of e-mails asking for my list of "essentials". I've deferred writing such a colunm or list for quite a few reasons, primarily that my list might not match your list. Every chessplayer is different and has different needs and requirements. When you throw the fact that I'm a writer into the mix, you can see that my particular chess information needs might not match yours.

The requests for my list just keep on a-comin', however, so I guess it's high time that I write the list and toss it out there for your consumption. So here we go -- my list of ChessBase software that I find completely indispensible: the essentials. (And the ChessBase program itself is obviously assumed, which is why it's not listed)

1. New chessplaying programs as they're released

I'm one of those guys who believes that you can't have too many chessplaying programs, which is why I literally have disks full of freeware and shelves full of commercial packages. Why should more than one program be "essential"? Let's forget for a minute that chess programs are basically electronic constructs, just because that little "literary device" will make the task of explanation that much easier. When you go over one of your own games, you'll likely see things you missed while the game was in progress. Show the game to several chessplaying friends and/or other chess club members, and you're liable to hear a lot of additional ideas that you'd not come up with on your own, either during the game or in your post-mortem analysis.

Multiple chessplaying engines act just like those chessplaying chums, pointing out errors and ideas that you may have missed. "But won't every chessplaying program just tell you the same thing?" Sure they might, if you missed a forced mate or material-winning combination. But different engines are programmed by different people, and in non-forcing positions different engines are very apt to show you different ways you might have played at those points.

That's why I find new chessplaying programs to be essential (and the "Compare analysis" feature in the Fritz, etc. GUI to be an essential tool). I can take my games and "feed them" to multiple chess engines, particularly ones which I know will play and analyze in different "styles" (lately I've been using Fritz, Hiarcs, and Shredder as my "Compare analysis" engines of choice); the results will likely show me more than one way I could have proceeded in a particular position. The more ideas I see, the more I'll spot the next time around (that's ideally the case, anyway). Why limit yourself to a single analyst's point of view? That's why I find a suite of engines an essential, and I'm always looking to add to my "electronic chess club".

2. The Mega Database

As a player, as a writer, I absolutely can not be without the latest version of the Mega Database. I know this isn't a big deal to younger readers who've grown up in the "Electronic Age", but it still blows me away that I can play through a half-dozen Capablanca games when I have a free hour by simply tapping a few keys instead of wasting twenty-five or thirty minutes just finding them in a stack of chess books. (And, to tell the truth, it stil blows me away that I can pull a movie off my shelf and toss the disk into a machine to watch it anytime I like -- I grew up in an era of twelve channels, no VCRs or DVDs, and if you wanted to see a particular movie you had to wait months for it to come on broadcast TV and make dang sure you were in front of the set to see it. When I was a teenager, a TV showing of the original King Kong was an event.)

The Mega Database is more than just a big honking collection of games. It's a repository of chess history, a massive library of the great games and events from throughout the long and colorful history of The Royal Game. I can look up games, players, openings, themes, endgames, the list is practically endless, without my ever touching a paper book and a plastic/wooden chess set. And, further sweetening the pot, tens of thousands of the games are annotated. Sorry, but if that seems like no big deal to you, I feel badly for you -- to players of my generation, this is an absolute miracle. Regardless of your age or generation, the Mega Database is a valuable tool for every serious chessplayer -- literally millions of games are available at your fingertips in mere moments.

3. Fritz Powerbook

Let's leave aside the fact that the Powerbook is a powerful statistical research tool -- sure, you can create a huge opening book using ChessBase and any huge collection of games, but that's a lot of time and effort (it takes even a fast computer a fair bit of time to put together a book that size); Powerbook is ready-made and ready to use. Let's talk about it as a practice tool.

The typical opening books that come with playing programs are specially tuned to accentuate and maximize that program's chances of winning games, especially against other chessplaying programs. That's not exactly what I want from my sparring partner. I want to see a broader range of openings, all kinds of things -- open games, closed games, gambits, offbeat variations, and everything in-between. You don't get that from the opening book that comes with your playing program, but you do get that from Powerbook. When you're training for an upcoming tournament, Powerbook's a great tool because you never know what kind of opening you'll have thrown at you -- just like playing against a variety of human opposition.

4. Opening Encyclopedia

The Opening Encyclopedia is a compendium of opening knowledge that covers every chess opening -- that's why it's called an "Encyclopedia", right? However, people always ask if there's any duplication of games between it and the Mega Database. Sure, some of the games are the same. But the Opening Encyclopedia contains opening overviews ("surveys") which give you the theory behind the openings (and these surveys aren't a part of the Big or Mega Databases) -- then you refer to the games as additional supplementary information. Whenever I create a database on a particular opening I'm learning I always start my search with the Opening Encyclopedia; when I copy the games to the new database, the opening surveys will thus appear as the very first games in my database. And don't forget that the Opening Encyclopedia is updated every year with new opening theoreticals. So this one, too, is an essential.

5. Correspondence Database

I've often referred to correspondence chess as the "great laboratory" for new chess ideas. But my interest in correspondence games goes far beyond a cold. clinical, academic interest. Correspondence chess is the last bastion for the swashbuckler and the gambiteer. Top-level chess only sees a true swashbuckler, a Tal or Shirov, every generation or two; mostly the upper echelon plays to minimize risk. It's your livelihood, grandmaster, so do what ya gotta do. But that's generally not exactly my idea of heart-stopping exciting chess.

But you see all sorts of risk-taking all the time in correspondence play. You get lots of gambits (Budapests, Cochranes, Smith-Morras) that you don't often see in high-level over-the-board play. You frequently see amazing sacrifices; correspondence players have the time to analyze this stuff out to the nth move to find the pot of gold at the end. Some correspondence players are simply stone crazy, sacrificing speculatively just because they can. It's great stuff, near and dear to my heart, and the Correspondence Database is the place I go to find it.

So that's my list, the ChessBase products that I absolutely can not do without. I'll draw an important distinction as a final note: just because a particular item doesn't appear on this list does not mean that I find it to be without value or merit -- this is simply the list of items that I find totally indispensible, the ones I must have to function as a chessplayer and chess writer.

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.

© 2007, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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