by Steve Lopez

I'm hearing a lot of complaining lately about how computers are "ruining" chess. I don't understand this at all. I guess it's because I still remember what it was like growing up in the 1970's in a Maryland town without a regular local chess club. The only books available were the standard Reinfeld books (plus Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess) that were available at the town's one or two bookstores. I couldn't order any chess books; my parents believed that "sending off" for things via mail order was like throwing our money away. I didn't even know what a Chess Informant was until I was well into my twenties. There were no personal computers back then, no Internet. There were a few tabletop chess computers, but they were hideously expensive, even by adult standards; for a teenager on an allowance, there was no way of obtaining one. A lot of people played chess (this was the "Fischer era", after all) but most people played badly; it was typical to have to remind your opponent how the Knight moved before play began. "En passant" was thought to be some form of French cuisine. If I couldn't find an opponent (such as they were), I had to content myself with playing through Horowitz' book Solitaire Chess or reading Bobby's old chess columns in back issues of Boys' Life. It's no wonder that wargaming, rather than chess, became the passion of my youth. I spent a hundred hours playing PanzerBlitz for every hour I spent over a chessboard.

Even after I became a young adult, a game of chess wasn't too easy to come by. I had two choices: either play the Chess cartridge on my Atari 2600 (which tended to cause blindness after a couple of hours of play) or hustle games in local taverns. Practicing chess was an unheard-of concept. If I came across a new opening in a book and wanted to try it out, I had to commit the thing to memory and hope that I had a chance to try it out on "Twenty-five cent Draft Night" down at the Corvette Lounge.

That's all changed today. I can get a game anytime of the day or night against Internet opponents or against a computer program. And I can practice any opening I choose, simply by forcing Fritz/Junior/Nimzo/Hiarcs to play it.

There are several ways to accomplish this kind of opening practice. The easiest way is to just use the existing opening book that comes with the program. Click the New button to start a new game, then whack the [F11] key to display the opening book. Just click on moves in the game tree until you reach the position from which you want to start. For example, if you want to practice the White side of the French Defense, you'd click on e4 in the game tree, after which the move is automatically made on the chessboard and the move display changes to show Black's options. You'd then just click ...e6, wait for the move on the board, then hit [F11] again to close the tree and start playing. If you want to play the French from Black's side, just use "Flip board" in the Board menu, hit [F11], click e4 in the game tree, hit [F11] to close the tree window, play ...e6 on the chessboard, and you're in business.

After you've been playing a while, you might notice that your favorite variation isn't in the opening book supplied with the program. Assuming that you've copied the opening tree to your hard drive, you can easily add variations of your own. Go to the Game menu and click off "Play against Fritz". Then give [F11] a smack to display the contents of the opening book. Click on moves until you get to the point where you want to add your new variation. Then just make the moves on the chessboard. The variation will be added to the opening book automatically. Please note that this won't work if you're loading the opening book from a CD; the new moves can't be written to a permanent medium like a compact disk.

If you're truly ambitious, you can create new opening books for Fritz on specific openings. Just follow the procedures I gave in ETN, in the issues for January 31, 1999 and February 7, 1999. Search for all the games of a particular opening and then merge them into an opening book.

If you'd like to create a shortcut to a particular opening setup, this is pretty simple to do too. This involves setting up partial games (or game fragments) in a database. First, click on the Database button to make sure you have the proper database loaded (the database you want to save these game positions into). Then click "Board" to go back to the main chessboard screen. Click off "Play against Fritz" in the Game menu and then click the New button to start a new game. Then enter the moves manually until you get to the position which you'd like to save and later practice from.

Next you'll click the Game button and select "Save". A window appears that lets you type in the game information. In this case, you won't be adding player names -- you'll type in the name of the opening instead. For example, you could manually enter the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, click "Save", and type "Ruy Lopez" in the box for White. You'd probably just want to leave the other fields blank (except for "ECO").

You can do this for as many openings as you like and save them into a database. If you wanted to add subvariations of the Ruy Lopez, you could just make the additional moves and save those as separate games. For example, you could add 3...a6 and 4.Bxc6 to the moves you made in the last paragraph, click "Save", and type "Ruy Lopez Exchange". You'll now have two Ruy games in your database: one for the initial Ruy Lopez setup and one for the defining position of the Ruy Exchange.

So how do you use these for training? It's fiendishly simple: just click the Database button to get the game list for the positions you've created and double-click on the opening you want to practice. This will kick you back to the chessboard with the game loaded. Then all you need to do is click on the last move in the game notation window and you'll be jumped right to that position on the chessboard (or you can click the rightmost VCR button below the chessboard itself to do the same thing). You can now start practicing right from that position. What could be easier? The best part is that Fritz will look in the opening book for that position and go to that spot in the book. Then, when you start playing against Fritz, it will use the moves found in its opening book to reply to your moves.

How do you know you're playing "book" moves while practicing against Fritz? That's easy to determine. If you're in book, Fritz replies instantaneously. The moment you play a non-book move, Fritz will start analyzing (and you'll see the analysis progressing in Fritz' analysis window). So if you have Fritz "thinking", you know you've left book.

After you've finished a practice game against Fritz, you might decide you want to save it. If so, be sure to use "Save" instead of "Replace", otherwise you'll overwrite your game fragment with the complete game you just played.

I've used this technique extensively to improve my opening knowledge (in fact, I wrote a few ETN columns about my experiences; they're in the Summer 1997 .zip file at the ChessBase USA web site). It's a really handy way to practice openings. Back in the bad old days, I used to have to corral (e.g. pay) a friend to face me across the chessboard so that I could practice new openings. Now I can sit down and make Fritz play a hundred games on the Black side of the Danish Gambit and Fritz never complains (although it's known to make frequent sarcastic remarks, of course. My children are often heard to ask "Who's Malcolm, Daddy, and why are you always telling him to shut up?").

Give these techniques a try -- your opening knowledge is bound to improve. 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.