by Steve Lopez

We just started an informal chess club at my (real) job, playing two or three days a week at lunchtime. One of the guys in the group is a talented beginner (I estimate a 1200 rating when he takes his time); the other guys are not quite as talented. Consequently, I've spend a lot of time explaining to them why they should take their moves back and play something else.

Let's face it: we all need some help now and then, no matter how strong we are as players. The only difference between walking into a five-move combination or hanging a Rook outright is one of degree. Even guys like Karpov make goofy mistakes at times (remember that game against Christiansen a few years ago?).

All of this "coaching" I've been doing lately has started me thinking about Fritz5's coaching functions. There's no shame in asking for help from a computer. To my way of thinking, there's a strong similarity between consulting Fritz's coaching functions during a game against the computer and asking your coach questions during a chess lesson. These functions make Fritz a good tutor/companion for casual chessplayers who are eager to learn more about the game and improve their own play. But they can also be used by club players who are looking to pinpoint weaknesses in their own game.

Give this a try. Instead of playing a game against Fritz and then waiting for the overnight analysis, you can activate the option "Coach is watching" in the "Coach" menu. Fritz will watch over you as you play, pointing out errors as you make them, essentially giving you "instant analysis":

This window gives you two choices for advice. You can ask for a subtle hint; in this case, Fritz thinks for a moment and replies "It seems that the silicon upstart plans a pawn move." You can then look at the position and see if you can figure out the danger.

If you can't discern where the threat lies, you can ask for a broad hint. In this case, Fritz says "You don't mind the silicon chatterbox moving his pawn on c5?" On the main board, Fritz uses a colored arrow to show its planned move.

After that, you have the choice of taking back the move or letting it stand (by clicking the button marked "I don't believe that").

There is also a way to call up the coaching functions without having to first make a mistake. Go to the "Coach" menu and click on "Hint" (or simply hit [F2]). After a few moments of calculation, Fritz will display a somewhat different coaching window:

You can click on the "Attackers" button to see which opposing pieces are in a position to threaten yours. Clicking on "Attacked" shows which of your pieces are in danger of being captured. Note, though, that this does not mean that they can be captured advantageously. For example, look at the diagram below:

In this position, Fritz shows three of my pieces in danger of being captured. However, you'll notice that the threat to the e5-pawn is ...Nxe5. After my reply Nxe5, Fritz will have given up a Knight for a pawn. So keep this in mind and don't instantly panic when you see one of your pieces highlighted in red!

The button "Undefended" shows any of your pieces which are not defended by a fellow piece. This will show you if you have any pieces "hanging". Remember, though that this is frequently not a fatal situation:

My a1-Rook is completely undefended, but this is currently not important as Black has no way to threaten it. It could become critical later if I decide to advance the a-pawn without developing my Queenside minor pieces first. So even a seemingly useless tidbit of information like this can have great value if you think about it a bit.

Click "Suggestion" next, and Fritz will tell you what it thinks you should play, both by using a colored arrow on the board and by describing the move in the "Coach" window.

Finally, you can click on "Fritz' plan", which will display any threats Fritz has in the position. This is a pretty easy function to understand: Fritz takes the current board position and generates a move for itself. After all, this is what a threat is in chess: what your opponent would do to you if he could make two moves in a row (in other words, what he will do to you unless you stop it or generate a stronger threat of your own).

These last two functions can be accessed in a different way. If you'd like a suggestion as to what Fritz thinks you should play, click on "Suggestion" in the "Coach" menu (or hit [?]). If you want to see any threats Fritz might have, click "Threat" in the "Coach" menu (or hit [SHIFT-T]).

Keep in mind, however, that the graphic (colored arrow) tools don't work with the 3D boards, so you'll need to switch to a two-dimensional display to be able to see it.

Another coaching tool is "Explain all moves" in the "Coach" menu (also accessible by hitting [CTRL-SHIFT-Z]). Fritz will generate a list of all possible moves in the position, ranking them from best to worst. You'll see the ranking change as Fritz looks more deeply into the position. You'll also receive a brief text explanation of each of the moves:

Some of the commentary can be a bit simplistic, and the occasional pointless move even stumps Fritz (8.a4 and 8.Kh1 in the example above). On the other hand, Fritz is pretty good at pointing out some positional subtleties, such as control of squares, that might not be obvious to the club level player. It's a pretty slick little tool, especially when reviewing modern grandmaster games. I frequently find myself asking questions like "Why didn't GM So-and-so play 23.Bd5?". With this function, Fritz can generate "quickie" replies that often answer my questions. If I need deeper analysis, I have additional options available with features like "Infinite analysis" and "Correspondence analysis".

Playing with Fritz can be very much like playing with a chess coach or stronger player with the wide variety of options the program makes available to you. Some of the clues and hints that Fritz generates can be quite valuable, even if you're a strong club player. The trick is to pay attention to the spots when the "Coach" window appears, and to look for correlations between them. Go ahead and give the coaching features a try and, above all, have fun!

Before I go, I want to wish you and yours a happy and safe holiday season, and all the best for the coming year! Happy Holidays from my house to yours!

Your questions, comments, and submissions are strongly encouraged.

You can reach me by e-mail.