by Steve Lopez

Last summer, somewhere in the "Learning a New Opening" series, I mentioned using "blitz memorization" as a tool for learning openings. I've had a few people ask me about this technique since then, so this week we'll look at an underused feature of ChessBase.

Several years ago, I was having a fiendishly difficult time on the White side of the Sicilian Defense. There seemed to be too much theory that one had to know to be able to play this opening effectively. I started searching for a White approach to the Sicilian that would solve my problems.

I was beginning to explore gambits in my general chess studies at the time. Flipping through a book on the subject, I came across the following line:

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Qe2 Be7 9.Rd1 e5 10.h3 0-0 11.Be3

This, of course, is the notorious Smith-Morra Gambit. In the hands of an experienced White player it can be a formidable reply to the Sicilian.

I immediately fell in love. White gets his pieces developed to logical squares(in fact the only undeveloped piece in the line I gave is the a1-Rook) plus the exact move order is not terribly critical. I decided that I wanted to learn as much as I could about the opening in a hurry.

Using ChessBase, I easily put togther a database of Smith-Morra Gambit games. I copied the key for this opening from the proper Fritz Power Book disk (though ChessBase could also have generated a key for me). By the way, keys for all the openings are available on the ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia CD. After I copied the key, I sorted all the games into it. I found the proper subkey for the line I was studying, pulled up a list of games, and set to work.

I played through the first few games manually, clicking on the "right arrow" button when I wanted to see the next move. I carefully examined each game slowly, looking for middlegame themes and plans for both sides.

After playing through a half-dozen games or so, I then started watching the games automatically. In ChessBase 6.0, you'll find a special button at the bottom of every game window. The button resembles a computer monitor.

Clicking on this button makes the program play through games automatically, saving you the trouble of having to click on the right arrow everytime you want to see a move.

After clicking on the button, you'll see a window containing a slider.

This allows you to control the speed of the playback (the rate at which a new move is made). Play with the slider until you find a comfortable speed. The program will play through the main line of the game at the speed you select, skipping over any variation lines (if you want to see those, you can always go back and view them by hand). The display will stop when the end of the game is reached.

There's an even slicker way to do this, by the way. Find a batch of games you want to see and load them into the Clipboard. Open the Clipboard list and click on the "monitor" button at the bottom of the list window. ChessBase will then play through the first game on the Clipboard. When it gets to the end of the game, it pauses for a moment, then loads the next game on the Clipboard and plays through it. It will keep doing this until it runs out of games on the Clipboard.

This is the way the "big boys" do it. I remember showing GM Alex Sherzer how to do this. He loaded all the games of a certain potential opponent as Black onto the Clipboard. He then spent the next half-hour sitting in my office watching the games go past at lightning speed, delighted by the feature.

This technique will work for us mere mortals as well. Just find a speed you're comfortable with (one that gives you enough time to look at each move and understand what's going on) and enjoy the show!

This technique is how I used my Smith-Morra games. I spent part of an evening playing through around 50 or 60 games, reinforcing what I had learned from my book on gambits. I then fired up Fritz and played a few games to practice what I'd learned. I won't say I became an expert in the opening, but I did learn the basics of the Smith-Morra in just a few hours.

I've called this technique "blitz memorization" but that's really a misnomer. You're really not trying to memorize anything. You just want to see a lot of games in a hurry. Pattern recognition is very important in chess, and this is a way to see a lot of patterns very quickly. You'll actually find it quite easy to spot recurring patterns and themes when you view a large number of games in a short period of time (provided you've already done the grunt work of first playing through some games slowly to get a handle on the basic ideas).

Does this technique work? You be the judge... (allow me to preface the next section by saying, in the time-honored tradition of cheesy testimonials, "I am not a professional chessplayer; I am a real person, like yourself...").

I've been playing chess since I was four years old, but I didn't get involved in "serious" chess until I was nearly thirty. I was a pretty weak player and I knew that to improve I would have to play as often as I could. I started playing at the library and the park every Saturday afternoon. Many of the players there were middle-aged and elderly men who were somewhat lacking in the social graces (to put it mildly). They would taunt me before a game and mock me when I lost (and keep in mind that all of the games we played were for "fun"; money never changed hands).

Needless to say, I developed an intense dislike for these guys. But I still showed up to play every Saturday afternoon for seven or eight months. I stopped going when work interfered with my ability to play on Saturdays.

Now let's push the clock ahead four years. One Wednesday evening, I stopped by the library. To my surprise, there was the usual crowd slaving over the sixty-four squares. They'd started to play twice a week, instead of just on Saturdays. I was invited over to play a game against one of my old nemeses, an elderly man with a particularly smart mouth. He'd made fun of me many times as I'd lost to his Sicilian again and again all those years before, so I was looking forward to showing him what I'd learned in the interim.

SL - [name withheld] [B21]
Hagerstown 10/26, 1994

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3

At this point, he gave me a baffled look. I couldn't believe that he'd played the Sicilian for years and had never see the Smith-Morra Gambit.

4...d6 5.Bc4 e6 6.Nf3 Nd7

I have to cop to some bewilderment of my own here. I think his idea was to go to b6 to strike at my light-squared Bishop.

7.0-0 Ngf6 8.Qe2 Be7 9.Rd1

I just proceed with my own development (after all, speedy development is why I sac'ed a pawn in the first place!).


Why didn't he castle? That's what he's been preparing for the last two moves! Ah, the dangers of changing plans mid-stream. His new plan is to play ...b5 to chase the Bishop. I decided to break the center, since my pieces are in striking position.

10.e5 11.Nxe5 b5

Too late! I've spotted the winning combination!

12.Nxf7 Kxf7

I analyzed the game with Fritz3 a day or so later. Fritzie found a different (and not at all obvious) continuation, which would have left him down material but with some compensation in the form of counterplay: 12...Qc7 13.Bxe6 Rf8 14.Nd6+ Bxd6 15.Bd5+ Kd8 16.Bxa8 Bxh2+ 17.Kh1.


Call for the hounds! Let the King hunt begin!

13...Kg6 14.Bd3+ Kh5 15.Qf5+

In my gleeful overzealousness, I missed that 15.Qh3 was instant mate. No matter -- he's now a historical fact regardless...


The next sound you hear will be the crack of Doom...

16.Qxg5# 1-0

You have to admit, this is a nice (albeit flawed) miniature. But the best is yet to come. After I said "mate", my opponent (the butthead who had taunted and tormented me countless times in the past) looked at the board for a few moments, then grabbed his chess bag and began to furiously throw the pieces into it, muttering like Popeye on speed. He didn't even bother to roll up the board; he just threw it under his arm and left in a huff (actually, I think he left in a Buick).

But before he left, he couldn't help but throw one last hate-filled glance over his shoulder at me. I was leaning to one side, one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of the chair. Our eyes met and I couldn't resist the temptation: I laughed, loudly enough for the librarian to "shush" me. My opponent turned on his heel and stormed out.

We didn't see him for a couple of weeks after that but when he returned, an odd thing had happened: he was actually nice to me. I had earned his respect. In fact, I was now getting invitations to come over and play chess with him on other nights. The hatchet was buried and we've since become friends.

Or, as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin said:

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T...find out what it means to me..."

Until next week, have fun!

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