OPENING LINES

by Steve Lopez

Letters...I get letters...

Alarming numbers of them, in fact. And I can paraphrase nearly all of them in a single word:

HELP!!!!

The programs we offer, particularly ChessBase itself, can be daunting to new users for the same reason that makes them attractive at the time of purchase: the sheer number of features they contain. While the manuals tell us how to operate these features, they don't tell us why or when to do so.

I'm asked repeatedly if there is a guide available to the use of ChessBase and Fritz as learning tools to improve one's chess, or if there is a standard program of study that users should follow. Unfortunately, the answer is "no". About three years ago, I was approached by a publisher interested in writing such a book. The proposal was to write a ChessBase/Fritz user's guide along the lines of the popular "Dummies" books. The project never really got off the ground, as the publisher realized the sheer magnitude of such a work and dropped the idea.

You see, the problem with such a book is the same problem faced by a new user. There are a ton of features that can be used in nearly infinite combinations. Simply organizing a ChessBase/Fritz user's guide would be a monumental task in itself before a single word of the actual text is written. We were tearing our hair out trying to figure out how to tackle the job long before we were prepared to sit down and write the danged thing. That was without even taking into account the fact that different people learn things in different ways, so that a program of study that would greatly benefit one user might be all wrong for another.

Even supposedly simple questions that have been sent to me contain a minefield of similar potential pitfalls. A hot topic lately has been the ChessBase Openings Encyclopedia CD (not surprising, in light of my description in the April 27th ETN). Quite a few people have purchased a copy and are now asking myriad questions about its use, touching on diverse topics such as opening keys, Fritz Powerbooks, survey games, search functions, and general programs of study for learning a new opening.

Diverse topics, yet interrelated ones. It's almost impossible to touch on one of these topics without bumping into the others. If I sat down and tried to explain it all at one sitting, the ETN issue would be unloadable; your computer would blow its brains out before the whole page would come up on your screen. Come to think of it, I'd probably blow my brains out trying to write the thing.

So here's what I've decided to do. I'm going to spend the next several issues of ETN trying to wipe out a whole flock of birds with a single stone. We're going to examine the idea of using ChessBase to learn a new opening. I'm going to attempt this step by step, in (hopefully) a logical order. The series will culminate in a "miniseries" about how I used ChessBase to prepare for a particular opponent. This "miniseries" will most likely prove controversial as the first part of it (tentatively) consists of a fiction piece, the content of which may be considered questionable for a chess publication. But when the smoke clears, and it's all over, we'll hopefully know a lot more about ChessBase and Fritz; in fact, I'm hoping that the whole series will partly answer the requests for some sort of study program for chess improvement using these software tools.

Then, again, I may just end up wasting everyone's time. I guess the only way to find out is to dive right in and see what happens...


LEARNING A NEW OPENING

PART 1

by Steve Lopez

Every chessplayer will eventually come to a point at which they decide that their opening repertoire is a bit creaky. Maybe one feels that one's choices of openings are too predictable. Perhaps one is just bored with playing the same old same old.

At any rate, we all come to that point at which we feel that our openings arsenal needs a bit of "freshening up". So how do we decide what openings to add to our repertoire?

We admittedly don't always make this choice by the most logical means. A lot of players find a game they like in a chess book or magazine and decide to adopt the opening used in that game. I first got introduced to the Budapest Defense this way, from a piece in Andy Soltis' book Karl Marx Plays Chess. There's nothing wrong with this approach; in fact, it seems to be the main reason many people subscribe to chess magazines in the first place.

In the old days the way the average player learned an opening was by trial and error. You found an opening you liked, you tried it down at the club, your opponent kicked your butt because he played something you didn't expect, you went home to analyze your game and look up some new variations, you went back to the club the next week, you got your butt kicked again, you went home to do more research, and on and on. Eventually, through tyhis process of trial and error, you learned a new opening.

Today the learning curve has been cut to a less steep level by the advent of computer tools. Now you can try openings against the computer in the privacy of your own home and get your butt kicked all week long before you go to a weekly chess club meeting and get it kicked yet again. Chessplaying programs can cut weeks off the learning process.

But did you know that you can shave the learning process (and consequently the butt kicking/healing process) down even more? You do it by using two tools: database programs and books.

I can already hear the muffled gasps. "Books??!!??!" you might say.

Shocking, ain't it? Imagine: a "computer guy" recommending books...

ChessBase and Fritz were never intended to replace books. ChessBase was designed to speed up the process of gathering, retrieving, and using information. Fritz was designed to speed up the process of "learning by doing". If you keep these two ideas in mind, it will go a long way toward demystifying these programs and how they're used.

The fact is that many people see books and computers as separate and incompatible. That's just not true. Anything that helps you learn is a good tool. The trick is in learning to integrate different tools to help you learn new things and speed up the learning process.

I have a confession to make before we go any further. I hate to keep using myself as an example in Electronic T-Notes, but I admittedly know myself better than I know any other chessplayer. I offer the ways I've used ChessBase and Fritz as examples, but this stuff isn't carved in granite. My hope is that you'll use the examples and suggestions I provide to jump start your own thought processes and get you thinking about ways that you can use the program.

That having been said, let's return to the main idea: how do we learn a new opening?

Once we've decided what opening to play (by stumbling across one in a book or magazine, having a teacher or stronger player recommend one, etc.), we need concrete advice and knowledge about how to play the opening and what ideas are contained within each major variation. For that knowledge we turn to books.

Why books and not disks? The answer is really quite simple. The disks that ChessBase offers are very good and quite comprehensive. It's that very comprehesiveness that makes them unsuitable for our purposes -- at the moment. We'll come back to them later. But right now we don't want to be lost in a labyrinth of moves and variations. We want the straight dope on why we're playing what we're playing.

There are a handful of really good books out there which are aimed at the average player, designed to teach the openings in an understandable way. The absolute best general book on openings ever written is The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Reuben Fine (David McKay Company, 1989). The first edition of this book appeared in 1943 in descriptive notation (and was consequently a real grind to play through). A new algebraic edition (with additional revisions by Fine) was released in 1989, and is a joy to read. Fine's book provides exactly what the title says: the ideas behind the major openings are spelled out clearly and in plain English. Reading, understanding, and remembering what Fine tells us about an opening in this book is the solid foundation for everything that is to come later.

Another excellent book is Chess Openings: Theory and Practice by I.A. "Al" Horowitz (Simon and Schuster, 1964). This fat boy (789 pages) has been in print constantly for over 30 years. There's a reason for this: while the specific variations in the book may be dated, the plain English discussion of the ideas in the various openings is not. I have a buddy who is a Class A player. I've seen his chess library and this is the only general book on the openings he owns. No ECO, no MCO, no BCO. Just this one chunky beauty. The only drawback to Horowitz's book is that it's written in descriptive notation. If you can get past that, you'll love it. The variations are presented in three groups: Idea Variations, which show us the ideas present in the opening, Practical Variations, which show us how the opening is actually played at the tournament level, and Supplemental Variations, which are the "side" lines that spring up out of the practical variations. It's a great approach, as you can pick and choose what level of variations to study (perhaps starting with the Idea Variations, moving on to the Practical Variations after a few games against the computer, and hitting the Supplemental Variations once you're really serious about the opening).

If you have the ducats, get both of these books. If you're only going to get one, get Fine's book, as the commentary is better (though the book covers fewer opening variations than the one by Horowitz).

There are dozens of other general opening books of varying quality. Look for books that explain in words what's happening (as opposed to symbols -- we'll get to those books later). A lot of good general books contain the word "repertoire" in the title. I'll recommend two more books and then leave the remaining hunting to you. If you'd like to have a repertoire selected for you, try Chess Openings, Your Choice by Stewart Reuben (Pergamon Press, 1989). The author gives you ideas, though a bit more sketchily than in the other two books I've mentioned.

And for those who just can't keep their hands off the computer keyboard, there's How to Choose a Chess Opening by Alex Dunne and your truly (shameless self-promotion, I know). It's not a book, it's a disk available from ChessBase USA as part of the ChessBase University series. On the disk, we suggest four repertoires, two for White and two for Black, depending on whether you prefer an attacking game or a maneuvering game. It's not terribly comprehensive, tending toward just the "meat and potatoes" of a particular opening. Alex and I don't delve into hordes of sub-variations, just a couple of variations per opening with accompanying text explanations.

The Fine and Horowitz books tend to be more comprehensive than the latter two, covering much more material, and I consequently recommend them much more highly. The other two I mentioned are good for helping you choose an opening if you're unsure of what you want to play.

So why books and not disks? A typical ChessBase disk on an opening contains the latest (at the time they were written) theory on the openings, comprising literally hundreds of variations. It's extremely easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of material on the disk. Additionally the disks were prepared for an international audience, so the commentary on the disk is in Informant symbols, not English text. When you set out to learn a new opening you want to be told plainly what to expect. The opening disks and the ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia will become extremely valuable later in the learning process. But for right now, as you take your first baby steps with a new opening, stick to the two books I recommended (or ones similar).

Next week, we'll start the actual learning process and blaze a trail into the unknown territory of a new opening! Until then, have fun!

I'm very interested in reading your opinion of this (or any other) issue of ElectronicT-Notes, as well as my book Battle Royale. I invite you to post comments to our ChessBase Users Group or else you can e-mail me directly.