Two new CDs: historical and one instructional

10/30/2003 – In this week's ChessBase Workshop, we preview two new CDs: one historical and one instructional. Have a sneak peek at Two Masters from Seattle by John Donaldson and Albin Countergambit by Luc Henris in Steve Lopez' ChessBase Workshop...

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previewed by Steve Lopez

  • Two Masters from Seattle by John Donaldson
  • Albin Countergambit by Luc Henris

Quick -- name two masters or GMs from Seattle, Washington (U.S.). The two that spring immediately to my mind are John Donaldson and Yasser Seirawan. In fact, when I saw the title of the ChessBase CD Two Masters from Seattle, that's who I thought the CD would be about.

Guess again. The CD is about two other great Seattle chessplayers. But I'll bet you can't name them.

Chess biography has always been a very popular subject, especially in electronic format. ChessBase has been releasing a very popular series of CDs on the lives and games of the World Champions. I'm currently involved in the editing of a CD (by another publisher) on Wilhelm Steinitz. But there are a lot of chessplayers who deserve to have their stories told -- and not all of them are super-famous. I recall a ChessBase USA disk (on floppy -- this was back in the mid-90s) on the games of Jacob Yuchtman, a Soviet player whose games were "surpressed" and didn't see the light of day (and get the attention they deserved) until that disk was released long after Yuchtman's career had ended.

John Donaldson authored two books about players who are, to many American chessplayers, obscure names. One book was Elmars Zemgalis: GM Without a Title, while the second was Olaf Ulvestad: An American Original. Zemgalis was a Latvian who later emigrated to America, while Ulvestad was native-born. Both were players who were quite active during the "Golden Age" of American chess (the 1940's and 1950's, a period in which the U.S. was actually a world power on the global chess scene, with players such as Mednis, Fine, and the Byrne brothers in the vanguard) and this fact alone makes them interesting subjects for a chess biographer such as Donaldson.

The new ChessBase CD Two Masters from Seattle is essentially these two books in electronic format, with additional material added. I don't possess the two print books in question so I can't describe what makes up this "additional material". Looking at the CD, my guess is that the material consists of many more games, more annotations, and possibly some extra illustrations.

I won't go into detail about the lives of these two masters; that would defeat the whole purpose of previewing the CD and, of course, Donaldson does a much better job of it than I could. I will say, though, that these two "obscure" players really shouldn't be obscure at all. Zemgalis was a noted European player for five years before his move to Seattle in 1952, after which he was arguably the top player in the Pacific Northwest for the next fifteen years. Ulvestad participated in numerous famous chess competitions, among them the U.S. Championship in 1939, 1946, and 1948, the 1939 and 1940 Ventnor City tournaments, the 1950 U.S. vs, Yugoslavia radio match, the 1962 Torremolinos zonal tournament, the 1970 Chess Olympiad, and most notably the 1946 U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. match.

The CD contains two databases, one for each of these masters. The Zemgalis database has an intro, three biographical texts, a very short interview with him, and a section on notable games. There are 190 games in the database, dozens of which are annotated (by a variety of annotators including Donaldson and Zemgalis himself). The Ulvestad database has four biographical texts, an article by Ulvestad called "Kings and Pawns in Soviet Russia", and 336 games. Here again there are annotated games (45 of them, including four annotated by the CD's other subject, Zemgalis, who contested a 1952 match against Ulvestad). The texts on the CD are liberally sprinkled with photos and illustrations, and they also contain the texts of various period articles on these two masters drawn from print publications.

What about the quality of the games themselves? You'll recall that we're talking about two strong players from America's "Golden Age", so the games are excellent -- some of them might even be described as "sparkling". Here's something to whet your appetite. Have a look at this position:

Elmars Zemgalis is playing the White pieces. His opponent has just captured a pawn with check by playing ...Rxg3+. It looks bad for Zemgalis: he's in check and his Queen is en prise and undefended. So what does he do? He plays a completely unexpected move that ends the game on the spot. What's the move? Go ahead and search your Mega Database for it -- you won't find it. Have a look at the position and see if you can spot the move.

But I won't tell. You'll need to check out Two Masters from Seattle for the answer. Here's what the March 1951 issue of Chess magazine had to say about it:

The Latvian émigré Zemgalis mowed down all opposition in a tournament at Stuttgart recently dropping only a half-a-point from eight games and finishing two points ahead of the runner-up Diemer. Here is a strange game from the event, with an even stranger finish.

That ought to whet your appetite. There are a lot of really interesting games on this CD, and the text content is equally interesting. If you're interested in the history of American chess (a subject that's been woefully undocumented, though that sad fact is changing rapidly with the release of CDs such as this one), you ought to check out Two Masters from Seattle -- it'll be well worth your time.

For our next preview, I can do no better than start it with a quote from the CD's introductory text:

When building his own opening repertoire, one has to decide to concentrate on popular main-line openings, or to attempt to avoid theory by employing little-known sidelines. Each approach has its own advantages.

For many club players, there is a temptation to avoid main-line opening theory and instead to play offbeat openings. This has the great merit of avoiding one's opponent's theorical knowledge and thus throwing him much more on his own resources.

Why do I think this passage is important? First, it mentions building a repertoire. Second, it specifically mentions club players. And third, it mentions offbeat openings. In a nutshell, that's what Albin Countergambit by Belgian master Luc Henris is all about. It's an ideal CD for the club player who is searching for a "sideline" opening to add to his/her arsenal.

For those not familiar with the Albin, it's a sideline of the Queen's Gambit in which Black offers to gambit a pawn (and this is much, as gambit opportunites for the player of the Black pieces are relatively few and far between compared to White's options). The opening moves are 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5:

We're already seeing some interesting stuff here. Should White accept or decline the pawn? Then what? The opening is so seldom played that it's not likely that White's "booked" on this opening -- he likely won't even know the opening's ideas. And that's where Albin Countergambit plays its role: by showing the prospective Black player exactly what (and what not) to do; this knowledge should give him a serious edge over most of his opponents.

The CD is structured much like other ChessBase opening CDs: there are four texts of an introductory nature describing how to use the CD, why you should consider playing the Albin, a brief history of this opening, and the general ideas behind the Albin as a whole. This is followed by twenty-five individual texts, each on an Albin variation. These texts, when taken in order, use a "building block" approach, providing a structure for learning the various Albin lines. Each text contains some brief commentary on specific moves, explaining the idea behind why the moves are played. Also included are links to important and instructional database games which illustrate these ideas in action.

The database contains over 3600 Albin Countergambit games, billed in the texts as the largest such collection ever assembled. Dozens of games are annotated, facilitating the learning process.

Once you have a handle on the ideas behind the Albin, you can proceed to the Training database. This contains twenty-eight games which have timed training questions so that you can test your knowledge under a "pressure" situation that simulates an actual game. If you prefer to play your own games, you can load the Albin opening tree as Fritz' (or our other chessplaying program's) opening book, forcing the chess engine to play nothing but Albin lines -- this gives you the chance to practice by playing real games in this opening. You can also use the tree for statistical research into the relative success of various lines; the tree contains 68,745 unique positions.

Both of the CDs discussed in this preview also come with the Chessbase Reader program, so no other software is required to be able to read, enjoy, and learn from them. However, if you have ChessBase or one of our playing programs, you'll want to use them instead of the Reader so that you can use their many extra features.

ChessBase has provided us with two excellent CDs here: we can enjoy a glimpse into America's chess heritage with Two Masters from Seattle and we can add a powerful surprise weapon to our opening arsenal with Albin Countergambit.

Until next week, have fun!

© 2003, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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