by Steve Lopez

In an interesting (and controversial) book, Chess Master at Any Age, author Rolf Wetzell advocates the use of flash cards as a form of chess training. I get hit with a lot of questions about how to do this in ChessBase, so it's high time we took a look at it.

We're going examine a technique I call "electronic flash cards". It's done completely on the computer; you don't need to make traditional flash cards out of paper (so put away the index cards, scissors, and that bottle of Elmer's glue).

The simplest example is given on page 20 of the ChessBase 6 upgrade manual. You can search a database for all games that ended in mate and generate a list of mate problems.

The first thing you'll need to do is go to the Status menu and click "Options". Select the "Notation" tab and click the radio button next to "Training". This will change the way the notation is displayed in a game window from the normal full gamescore to "training" mode (in which only the last move played will be shown on the screen). Click "OK".

Next, double-click on a database icon to go to the game list for that database. Scroll up to the first game in the list. Click the "Install a filter" button in the row of buttons at the bottom of the game list window (it's the fifth one from the left and looks like the symbol for "filter" in electronics schematic diagrams). This will bring up the search mask.

Click "Reset all" (please see the ETN rant, err, column from January 24, 1999). Next put a check in the box next to "#" (the mate symbol). Then click "OK". ChessBase will now search for all the games that ended in checkmate. You'll wind up with the game list for the database again, but all the non-checkmate games will be filtered out so you'll see only the games that ended in mate (hence the phrase "install a filter").

Now let's have some fun. Whack the [F10] key on your keyboard. This will load the first game. From the position shown, you'll need to find the checkmate for the moving side.

This is tougher than it looks. Here's why: ChessBase will not only find the games in which there's a mate on the move, but also games in which there's a forced mate in two. So the search finds not only games that ended in actual mate, but games in which one player resigned when faced with a mate in two.

I discovered this completely by accident. I did a mate search on a database of Pillsbury's games, hit [F10] and was wracking my brain trying to find the mate in one. I looked and looked and concluded that there wasn't one. I've been known to suffer from acute chess blindness throughout my tournament career, though, so I fired up Fritz for some analysis of the position. Sure enough, there was a mate in two. I checked a few more games from the database and found that all positions were mates in one or mates in two. Interesting!

This is a great way to brush up on basic mating patterns. It's also an excellent way for kids to practice checkmates.

But suppose you want to do something a bit more involved, like create a list of tactics positions for testing yourself. This, too, is possible, but you'll need to be a bit more ambitious.

A good habit to get into as you replay games from a database is to set medals for individual moves. Starting with ChessBase 7, it's possible to assign medals to individual game moves (as opposed to the game as a whole, as was the case in previous versions of ChessBase). If you're playing through a master or grandmaster game in one of your databases and come across an interesting sacrifice or tactical shot, you just mark the position with a medal. You can then use the search mask to look for these medals and use them as "flash card" positions.

For example, suppose you're playing through a game in which Black plays a three-move combination that wins a Rook. You decide you'd like to be able to mark this position for later use as a flash card. Just click on White's last move before the combination began. This will jump you to that position. To mark the move, click on the button for "Special annotations, correspondence management" at the bottom of the window (it's the 7th button from the left). Select "Set medal" from the menu. Choose a medal from the list that appears; in this case, you'd probably want to select "Tactics" (dark red medal) from the list. Click "OK" and you'll now see the medal in the game notation following the move White played right before Black hit him with the Rook-winning combination. Important: don't forget to use "Replace" in the Game menu to make sure the medal will remain part of the game once you close the game window. Also remember that you can't use "Replace" on a game from a database that's on a CD -- you'll have to use "Save" instead to save it to a database on your hard drive.

Once you've accumulated a number of these tactical positions, you can use the search mask to find them and use them as flash cards. Remember to first set the game notation to "Training" (as described above). Then double-click on the database's icon to get the game list and click the "Install filter" button to get the search mask. Click "Reset all". Then click the "Medals" button and select "Tactics". Click "OK" and in a few moments you'll have a list of the games that contain the medal for tactics. Give the [F10] key a smack and you'll be jumped to the start of the combination you've marked in the first game.

You also can do this for a variety of other position types you've marked: strategic themes, successful attacks, interesting endgames. You can generate a lot of different "flash card" tests for yourself in this manner. Once you've marked several different types of medals in this manner, you can give yourself a real challenge by searching for more than once type of medal at a time. Once you jump to a position, you have no way to know if the winning line was a tactic, a strategic ploy, a sacrifice, or any of the other criteria. You'll only know that there was a winning line of play in the position and that you'll have to find it. This is much more of a challenge than if you knew the specific type of theme in the position.

If you'd like to use Wetzell's method of marking positions from your own games, just use the "User" medal when marking the relevant (winning or losing) position. (Part of his method, by the way, seems to consist of a form of mental self-flagellation: you keep looking at losing positions you've gotten yourself into while mentally beating yourself up over it. It's a form of negative reinforcement. Medieval monks would have loved it. He also suggests various forms of positive reinforcement, like creating a flash card with a photo of your significant other. Sorry, all that does is remind me that she yells at me for playing too much chess. I'll just substitute a card with that nice Queen sacrifice I played that lead directly to my opponent's sad demise in an e-mail game a couple of weeks ago).

So now we know how to mark positions and how to do the search. But what happens once we're there? How do you use these positions as training?

This is pretty easy to do. When you think you know the winning move, just make it on the board. If it's the correct move, nothing unusual happens -- the move just appears on the board normally. If, however, the move is incorrect, you'll see the "Enter new move" box appear. This will show you the move you made and the correct move. Just click "cancel" to clear this box. Please don't click "Overwrite" or you run the risk of messing up the gamescore. If you have plenty of self-control, you'll be able to click the "Cancel" button without peeking at the correct move and then be able to make another guess. Otherwise, just check out the correct answer and whack [F10] to go to the next position in the database.

You can also use the advanced search mask features to look for games containing sacrifices and material imbalances so that you can mark them as "flash card" positions, but these features are another doctoral dissertation for another time. For now, this article should get you started.

By the way, it's a good idea to get to know the uses for the various "F" keys on your keyboard in ChessBase (as well as many of the other keyboard commands -- like the various ALT and CTRL combinations). These are a handy shortcut to many of the frequently-used ChessBase features. However, there are keys on your keyboard that have no apparent use in any program. For example, there's the [SysRq] key. This key apparently has no known purpose. Actually, it is known but it's a jealously-guarded secret. I discovered it by accident. You know how you'll be merrily using a program, when suddenly your mouse cursor freezes for absolutely no reason and you can't use the mouse? In fact, you can't even use CTRL-ALT-DEL to exit the program -- you just have to shut your computer off and turn it on again, losing all the work you just did. No, [SysRq] doesn't solve the problem. Hitting this key causes the mouse cursor to freeze on somebody else's computer. I used to hit this key just for the heck of it right after turning on my computer each morning -- it was a type of morning ritual. After doing this for about three months, I received a postcard in my mailbox. It was from an accounting firm in Cleveland. The card said simply: "Cut it out!"

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits, stop by the Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.