by Steve Lopez

I've been involved with ChessBase products for about five and a half years, and in that time the concept of chess databases and the techniques for using them have become second nature to me. Unfortunately, sometimes I forget that there are many ChessBase/Fritz users who are totally lost when it comes to the database concept. It took a pile of e-mail to remind me that I need to go back and cover some of the basic concepts for our new users.

I intend to include some articles in Electronic T-Notes that cover these basic ideas and techniques. I'll call these pieces "Base Basics". Hopefully they'll be helpful in getting our new users up to speed on what chess databases are all about.

Let's start by looking at the whole database concept. The term "database" is pretty intimidating. It conjures up images of massive computers storing huge amounts of information, spewing forth endless printouts of closely-spaced numbers at the command of bespectacled men in white lab coats.

An interesting fact is that, if you're reading this, you have a database in your possession right now. And, no, it has nothing to do with your computer. If you're reading this, you're on-line. If you're on-line, you most likely have a telephone. If you have a telephone, you have a phone book.

If you have a phone book, you have a database.

A database is nothing more than a collection of related and/or organized information. A telephone book, for example, is a database of information that is both related and organized. It's a database of people's phone numbers in either alphabetical or numerical order. If you need Fred Firkle's number, just flip to the "F's", skip down the page using the alphabetical order that we all learn as children, and there's old Freddie's number.

An encyclopedia, on the other hand, is a database of unrelated information, but one which is organized. The main topics are in alphabetical order (just like a phone book) and there are usually pointers to other linked topics and articles.

Neither of these items (phone books, encyclopedias) are particularly threatening (unless, of course, you count being visited by a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. That's scary!). So we can pretty much put to rest the mental image we shared a few paragraphs ago. Databases are used by everyone and we use them on a daily basis.

One of the primary uses of a computer (some might argue that it's untimately the only use) is for storing and retrieving information. Computers can do this much more quickly and efficiently than humans. In fact, this is why digital encyclopedias and phone books are hot-selling items in software stores. It's a whole lot easier to pop a CD into a drive and let a computer do a search for the information you want than it is for you to get up from your chair, walk across the room to the bookcase, pull out a book, and start flipping pages until you find what you want.

A computer database is made up of two parts. First there's the actual information: the list of phone numbers, addresses, shoe sizes, whatever. The other part is called the search engine, which is simply a means by which you tell the program what specific information you're looking for. As an example, the search engine for a digital phone book might require that you type in the person's last name in one box, followed by his first name in the next. You might type in "Firkle, Fred" and a second or two later the computer will display Freddie's phone number on the screen. (Then, of course, there's also the irony of Internet phone number databases. They work the same way, except that once you've located the phone number you want, you have to go off-line to be able to use the telephone. I'm still scratching my head over that one).

Viewed in this light, the concept of computer databases is a pretty simple one. It's just a bunch of information stored on a computer instead of on paper, with some means for searching through the information to find what you need.

A chess database works in the same way as a digitized telephone book or an encyclopedia on CD ROM. You can store hundreds of thousands of chess games in any random order on a computer and use a search engine to find what you need quickly and easily.

What's the benefit of such a database? Chessplayers, moreso than participants in any other sport, are obsessed with the past. We collect, store, play through, argue about, dream of, and learn from great games of the past. We learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before, fill our minds with the ideas of past masters and champions, appropriate their ideas, and build upon the solid foundation they've provided us in order to develop ideas of our own.

With computers, we're able to store nearly limitless amounts of chess knowledge in digitized form and call upon any part of it at a moment's notice. In a twinkling of an eye, we can have access to information that would take hours or days to locate in a chess library stored in traditional paper format.

Here's an example: there's an interesting (albeit unsound) line in the French Advance that was strongly advocated by Nimzovich many years ago. The moves are 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.Qg4. I wondered if this line had ever appeared in a volume of the Chess Informant. So I fired up ChessBase and took a look. Using the Informant CD and the "Find novelty" command, ChessBase found the one game out of 61,897 in which this opening was played: Doug Root vs. Anatoly Lein from 1978 (Vol. 26 Game 223). If I'd been trying to find this game in a collection of hardcopy Informants, it would have taken me all day. It took ChessBase about 4 seconds.

It's easy to see how much computer databases have to offer. We'll look at some tips and techniques for their use when this series continues. Until then, have fun!

Send your questions and comments about Electronic T-Notes and Battle Royale to our ChessBase Users Group or you can e-mail me directly.