by Steve Lopez

Even though I don't always personally respond, I do read your e-mail comments on my Web pages for ChessBase USA. In fact, Electronic T-Notes is driven primarily by such letters. Your comments and suggestions are extremely valuable to me as a source of topic ideas for this newsletter.

A couple of weeks ago, I received such an e-mail from an old friend, Geoff Barnes. I still recall Geoff calling me from Dubai (in the middle of the night for him!) just to laugh about something I'd written in my old Bits and Pieces column (which had tons of useful information, if you could stand the fact that it had a joke somewhere in every paragraph).

Geoff is now either on this side of the globe or else he's decided to sleep a bit more, as I'm now receiving his commentary via e-mail rather than over the phone. His most recent letter to me contained some interesting ideas about the use of ChessBase:

"I recommend ChessBase to locate material of interest and conduct 'osmosis'-style quick review, Fritz to test lines, and Bookup to record conclusions and game references and to study the 'tournament variations' develop through research."

If Geoff was shooting arrows, this would have been a bullseye. Most people who are using all three programs are doing what Geoff recommends. Each program has its strengths and weaknesses as a study tool and Geoff's e-mail set me to thinking about the differences between them.

ChessBase is primarily a reference library, an idea that I began to discuss in last week's Electronic T-Notes (and to which I will return when the "Base Basics" series continues). It's a dang sight faster and easier to pull up a set of games in ChessBase and play through them on the screen than it is to look them all up in books and try to play through them on a traditional chessboard.

The idea of "learning by osmosis" is a topic that I've been meaning to cover in ETN. I learned the Smith-Morra Gambit in one evening using ChessBase and proceeded to trash a particularly obnoxious opponent with it. But that's another story for another time. The important point right now is that ChessBase is a particularly handy tool for storing and quickly retrieving large amounts of chess knowledge in a hurry.

ChessBase's primary weakness as a tool for learning openings is its lack of a tree feature. This problem will be addressed in the next version of ChessBase, and it somewhat alleviated by the inclusion of a tree function in Fritz5. Fritz is a marvelous tool for testing opening lines and theory. Anytime an annotator raves about a new novelty in an opening I play, I test the new move using Fritz. There are a variety of ways to do this:

1) Actual head-to-head combat against the program;

2) Infinite level analysis, in which Fritz thinks until you stop it. The program then provides you with the best line of play that it found, along with an assessment of the resulting position. You can do the same thing with the Fritz module directly within ChessBase, with the added ability to view multiple lines of play (the second best, third best, etc. lines of play);

3) The correspondence analysis function, in which Fritz generates a full tree of analysis instead of a single line of play (similar to the "tree" analysis that you can get from the Fritz module within ChessBase, but much more detailed).

I have a tendency lately to use the correspondence analysis, letting both Fritz5 and Hiarcs6 chew on the position in question. This requires that a game be loaded twice in a database: once for Fritz's analysis and once for Hiarcs'. I generally create a new "analysis" database and store the games there, so as to not duplicate games in my database on the opening in question.

This brings us to the question "Why Bookup?". Despite the fact that we have a transpositional tree function included with Fritz5, Bookup will provide you with some features that Fritz5 lacks, two of which are quite significant.

The first is the ability to add an annotation to a position. Don't underestimate the power of the written word. I've written extensively on the openings over the last few years (including a complete book on the Worrall Attack, currently on hold at the publisher's) and Bookup has been a great tool for storing written commentary, game citations, notes, and other mnemonics. You hit a position, click on an annotation box, type your note and proceed onward. No matter how many lines reach that position, the note will always appear. An extra bonus is when you add master and grandmaster commentary to the tree and catch some GM with his pants down. I once spotted a GM giving two different evaluations to an identical position in the same article in a chess magazine. He first evaluated the position as slightly better for White, then came back a page later to say that it gave a slight edge to Black. I marked it as "unclear" and moved on. (Another good point in Fritz's favor: when you come across an unclear position, have Fritz clarify it for you).

The second big point in Bookup's favor is that you can print ECO-style analysis trees with it, and I believe it marks the transpositions. This is somewhat different than ChessBase, which will generate an ECO-type tree from a set of games but leave the transpositions unmarked. Fritz5, though it has a tree function, will not print the tree.

I'm not a monster user of printouts but this is primarily because I do almost all of my chess work at home these days. I rarely play in tournaments, so I have no need to generate printouts of my repertoire to take on the road with me. But I also realize that there are a ton of players who don't have laptop computers and want to print out their opening repertoires for reference at tournaments. Bookup allows you to make a hardcopy tree, perfect for travel, framing, and theft by your opponents. Don't laugh. I used to know a guy whose specialty was stealing "playbooks" at tournaments. He rarely used the pilfered info himself; he just did it to screw with people's heads. I think they found his body in a dumpster behind the Adam's Mark one year.

All three of these programs have something to offer the serious chessplayer/chess student. ChessBase is your reference library; in it you can search out ideas for use in your own games. Fritz is your laboratory, in which you put these ideas though some practical testing. And Bookup is your "playbook" recorder, in which you log the results of your research in an easy-to-use tree form. This combination works for Geoff. It works for me. I think it'll work for you, too.

Another letter came in two days before Geoff's. It was from Gary Gauthier, and contained a couple of interesting comments. Gary says, "I once used books with a board but since using CBDemo [the demo version of ChessBase] it is hard to go back to books, even the classics".

While there's a lot to be said for Geoff's "osmosis" approach, good old-fashioned "one game at a time" study has a place as well. ChessBase and Fritz are perfect tools for this, as they can act exactly like an electronic chessboard.

Personally, I think it's a mistake to give up traditional books in favor of an "all-electronic" approach. Instead, I heartily endorse a synthesis of the two methods. Read traditional books, but use ChessBase/Fritz/Bookup/etc. instead of a traditional board. This will help you navigate more quickly through mazes of variations, plus you don't have to set up a board each time you come to a new game in the book. Just hit "New Game", let the computer reset the board, and keep studying. You can also save the games to disk in the event that you read the book again at a later date (I have piles of disks that contain the games from various chess books that I've read).

One last tip from Gary Gauthier before I leave you for the week. Gary relates (in talking about my book Battle Royale), "At first I had difficulties following your annotations (in fact, all annotations) because they get pretty messy and confusing in the annotation window. But if you use the "training" view, the annotations are much easier to work with. You see just one annotated move at a time."

Great point, Gary. ChessBase's "training" mode does just what Gary says. Instead of giving a view of all the moves of a game, the move window shows just the current move with any text annotations under it. To go into training mode, open up a game and click on the second icon from the left at the bottom of the game window. Select "Training" from the menu that opens, and away you go.

Thanks to everyone who's written to me with ideas and suggestions for T-Notes topics. Please keep them coming! I'll be back next week with some more rantings from my Maryland home -- 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.