by Steve Lopez

Yes, it does say ChessBase 7.

The new version of ChessBase is due to be released in Europe in a few days. Please keep in mind that it takes a bit longer for the program to be released in the U.S. due to the time it takes to ship stock from Germany to our fair shores.

I received a beta copy a few days ago and have been playing with some of the new features. One of the more interesting new features is the creation of opening reports. You can feed ChessBase 7 a position, have it search a reference database for games containing the relevant position, and the program generates a report containing useful information about that position.

I'm currently involved in a correspondence game in which we're playing a variation of the Caro-Kann Advance. We're comfortably into the middlegame now (in which I have a pretty good position, thank you), but I was curious as to what might have happened had I played an alternative sixth move I'd considered as Black. I decided to test the new feature on this alternate position. I gave the position to ChessBase 7, designated my Caro-Kann Advance database as the "reference database", and let the program rip. In a matter of seconds, the program generated an opening report for this position:

The opening report appears as a standard ChessBase text. You'll notice that the text begins with the move order you input into the program, as well as a diagram of the current board position (with the last move shown by an arrow). Below the diagram (but not pictured in the illustration above) is displayed the ECO code of the position and a link that will jump you to a standard game list of all the games in which this position appeared (in this case, 51 games from my database).

Next the report provides the history of a variation. This consists of information on (and links to) the earliest and latest games in which the position appears, as well as the latest grandmaster game in which that opening was used. You also receive two bar graphs. The first shows you what years the opening was used and how often within each year:

The second is a "fashion index", showing how often the opening was played compared to how often it should have appeared according to a normal statistical curve:

We can see that 6...Ne7 has become very fashionable recently. From 1995 to 1998, it's been played almost twice as much as you would statistically expect it to be played. Is it because the move is very good for Black or just that it's the "in thing" to play? That's what we'll need to determine using the information in the rest of the opening report.

The next section refers to players. The report provides a list of strong players who have played the move, along with their results, a link to their games, and a link to their entries in the Players Encyclopedia. You'll also see some other players of note mentioned:

We notice a few interesting things already. Anatoly Karpov has hideous results with this move. He's only won a single game out of four in which he's reached this position. Epishin and Dreev do very well with this line. We also see that I need to do some database editing; I have Adianto listed twice, once with a first initial and once with his whole first name. I need to change one of the listings to match the other (and it's quite likely that they're both the same game, so one of them ought to just be deleted).

Now we start getting to the "nuts and bolts" of the opening report. How well does this opening do in actual competition? The next section, "Statistics", will help provide that answer:

Here we see a straight "bean count" of how the opening has fared in practice. We see that Black generally does pretty well with this move. Black wins over half the time and there are few draws. It appears that this might be a move better suited for attacking players. We also see that the White wins are a bit shorter than average, but not so much that we need worry about any tricks or traps.

Next we get to the most important section of the opening report, "Moves and Plans":

I had read the pre-publicity about this feature and, to be honest, I thought it was a crock. "There's no way this will work!" was my initial reaction.

I have to admit that I was wrong. Seriously wrong. To be honest, I think that this feature is the single most important innovation in ChessBase history.

The program, in generating an opening report, will show you the most important replies to the move you're researching. The "importance" is determined by several factors: recent popularity, Elo performance and averages, number of top GMs who play the opening, and sheer number of games in which the position appears. For each reply, you'll receive the number of games, the years in which they were played, a performance rating for the players of that move, an evaluation of how successful the move was, and links to games of strong players who played the move.

You'll also receive a suggestion as to what you should play in reply, a link to those games in the database, a diagram showing the position after the move the program has suggested for you, plus links to recommended games in which that position appeared.

Now comes the part that should seriously freak you out (as it did me):

The report will show you the main line (the one most frequently played), the critical line (the one that was most successful for the moving side), and the main plans for both players, along with links to games in the database relative to all of this stuff! Un-freaking-real!! When grandmasters play for the World Championship, they hire a team of seconds to do this type of work for them. These guys stay up all night, searching for hours for material relevant to the position at hand, playing through game after game, trying to find themes, patterns, and ideas. Now ChessBase will do the same thing for any of us patzers, and do it in seconds!

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a bit lightheaded.

Here's the really great part for postal players. In creating an opening report, ChessBase does not use a playing engine. It is merely providing statistical analysis on a group of pre-existing games, just as a tree program would, but in a more sophisticated manner. Ergo, the use of this feature is perfectly legal in correspondence play!

I'm excited! Can you tell?

This is one of the most unbelievable things I've seen from any chess program. This feature is exactly like giving a strong player a big stack of games, telling him to research the position and type you up a report for in the morning, then toddling off to bed and letting someone else do all the grunt work. And it doesn't take all night -- just a few seconds!

I'm woozy. I must lie down, maybe for about a week. We'll talk some more about ChessBase 7 next Sunday. Until then, have fun (and stop that drooling)!

You can reach me by e-mail with your ideas and suggestions.