by Steve Lopez

Chessplayers spend entirely too much time studying the opening.

It's true. I've read numerous quotes from masters and grandmasters who say that no player should spend a significant amount of time studying chess opening variations until he reaches Expert level (2000 rating USCF).

Now let me climb down off of this soapbox and kick it aside, while I admit to you that I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. Take a look at past ETN issues if you don't believe me. Every couple of months I kick out an article about ways to use ChessBase and Fritz to study openings (and guess what? This week's article would have been about openings had I not received a new CD in the mail). I spend a ridiculous amount of time going over my games, looking for the point at which I left "book" and trying to learn and remember the "proper" continuation.

The fact, though, is that class-level players are better off studying chess principles rather than specific openings. I can't tell you how many people I've played who can crank out ten moves of flawless "theory" and then completely fall apart in the middlegame (conversely, I can't tell you how many times I've played the opening brilliantly, only to lose a piece in the middlegame).

The reason we study openings so much is because it's easy. The pieces always start on the same squares and the rest is just rote memorization (although a few enlightened players make an effort to understand the ideas behind the openings instead of just comitting a pile of lines to memory). The middlegame is a whole lot more difficult to study than the opening. There are so many factors: tactics, strategy, piece placement...where does one start?

The trick is to study principles. American master Gary Gauthier did this quite effectively in his CD ABCs of the Chess Openings, which described the handful of basic principles that apply to every opening. Gary has now applied this technique to the middlegame, on a new CD called ABCs of the Chess Middlegame.

The work on this CD looks deceptively simple, but I can tell you from first-hand experience (from writing my own Battle Royale) that this disk was a heap of work. Gary has meticulously broken the middlegame into easily-understood themes with many annotated illustrative games for each theme he's chosen. Selecting the games alone was a big chore, but Gary's also annotated them in a clear, easy to understand manner. That's nothing to sneeze at -- I shudder to think of the hours of work that went into the creation of this CD.

The easiest way to describe the disk is to take a look at its parts. There are three databases on the disk: Strategy, Tactics, and Training. You'll begin with the Strategy database, which contains 43 annotated games. The introductory text file appears, with an amusing opening video clip from GM Danny King. After a short bit of text, you'll find links to several middlegame keys. There are sections on Weak and Strong Squares, The Initiative and Combinations, The Bishop, The Knight, and The Open File. By clicking on one of these keys, you're taken to a game list showing you games in which that particular theme plays a vital role. As Gary instructs on the disk "We recommend that you concentrate on one game at a time and one theme at a time. The best method of using this database is to review a few games at a time and to keep coming back for more." That's sound advice. I've been playing through three or four games at a time, slowly, and then playing a few games of my own (either on-line or against a computer). Then I come back and play through another handful of games from the same key, so that I'm not jumping haphazardly from theme to theme. And, in all seriousness, I'm already seeing serious improvement in my play.

Once you complete the section on Strategy, it's time to move on to Tactics. You'll be spending a lot of time in this section -- it contains an astounding 391 annotated games! Again, we have the customary video clip from GM King, followed by some explanatory text. The text contains key links for openings, middlegame strategy, and typical piece behavior. But these three keys are not the main attraction of Tactics database. Instead, there are ten keys on middlegame themes (such as the Center, the Weak King, weak back ranks, and piece themes), as well as ten additional keys for "Mate in x" problems. As a bonus, there are keys for the eight great players (Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Euwe, Fischer, Morphy, Nimzovich, and Tal) whose games make up this database. You also get a second video clip from GM King attached to this database.

After you've completed the section on Tactics (and trust me, this will take a while if you're studying them correctly), it's on to the Training database. This one contains 35 games with timed training questions for you to solve. Playing through these games and trying to solve the problems lets you know how well you've absorbed the material on the CD. Don't be discouraged if you don't score 100% -- as GM King says on this disk, it takes years to learn to play the middlegame properly. However, careful study of the material on this CD can drastically cut down the amount of time it takes you to become a middlegame virtuoso.

The text files and videos are in both English and German (it flipped me out to see Danny King delivering his commentary in German!); all of the game annotations are in English. The CD can be used with either ChessBase or one of our playing programs, but ownership of them is not required to use the CD -- it comes with CBLight (the demo/reader version of ChessBase 7), so it's a standalone product.

So here's the big question: who can benefit from this CD? It can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of playing strength -- there are a lot of real chessboard gems on the disk. The players who will benefit most from the instructional material are untitled players (below Expert -- up to 2000 USCF). I know a lot of Class A players who might think that this type of instruction is beneath them, but they're only kidding themselves. Very few A & B players of my acquaintance know this material thoroughly. Even if you've read Nimzovich and Pachman cover to cover, you'll still learn a few things from ABCs of the Chess Middlegame.

"For those who came in late" (with a tip of my cap to Lee Falk), Gary Gauthier's ABCs of the Chess Openings (described in ETN a few weeks ago) is an excellent disk for players up to about 1500-1550 USCF, while the new ABCs of the Chess Middlegame will benefit players of up to 2000 USCF rating.

ABCs of the Chess Middlegame is a really outstanding disk. I'm enjoying it immensely and it's already improved my play -- studying just three games from the Strategy database snapped me out of a several-week slump and had me winning games again. Gary Gauthier has put a ton of hard work into this CD. It's a real labor of love and one of the best chess training disks I've seen yet (this one and King's Check and Mate are my favorites).

Will Gary do a disk on chess endgames? I hope so. Most of us stink at endgames (even worse than we do at middlegames) and we could sure use the help. Time will tell...

Until next week, have fun!

IMPORTANT NOTE: ChessBase USA will be closed Monday, May 31st for the Memorial Day holiday. We'll reopen with our usual schedule on Tuesday, June 1st.

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.