by Steve Lopez

It's been said that the difference between tactics and strategy is that "tactics is what you do when there's something to do, while strategy is what you do when there's nothing to do". Purists really hate that irreverent definition (and it is somewhat inaccurate) but it's not far from the mark. Tactics deals with short-term gains while strategy involves long-term planning.

It's not terribly difficult to become an adequate chess strategist; like anything else in chess, it involves study and practice. The first step is to have someone point the way, which is what Professor Alex Bartashnikov has done with the three CD series Basic Principles of Chess Strategy. Although we previously looked at Volume 1 in ETN, I thought it would be a good idea to examine all three volumes now that the long-awaited third volume has been released.

The three CDs follow the standard format for ChessBase training CDs: you're introduced to a concept via a text screen (much like reading a few pages from a chess book) and the discussion is then followed by links to illustrative games. The overall effect is much like reading a chess book; everything is done in a logical sequential order. "So what advantage does a CD have over a book?" I hear you asking. The big advantage is that you can play through the whole game directly on a computer screen, jumping to any point in a game at the click of a mouse, hitting a key at the end of a variation to return instantly to the main line -- in other words, no messing around with boards and pieces, losing your place on a printed page, etc. Many games also use special annotation features (such as colored arrows and squares) to emphasize important points. It's also possible to easily conduct searches for games that illustrate specific themes, games of specific players, etc.

Here's a typical method for using such a CD. Usually a training CD starts with a text introduction to the volume. When you've read the intro, you have a couple of ways to proceed. One is to whack the ESC key on your keyboard to close the text window and return to the game list for that database. The next item in the game list will usually be another text entry introducing a key concept. Just double-click on it to open the text and continue reading. Another method is available when the CD's author providesd a table of contents to the sections on the CD -- just click one of the links in the table of contents to go to that section. (I'm usually asked for my personal preference is these cases, so I'll provide it [free of charge]: I usually hit the ESC key to keep from having a pile of windows open but, as I said, this is just personal preference. As always, your mileage may vary).

Let's look at Basic Principles of Chess Strategy Volume 1 for an example. It begins with an introductory text. Near the end of the introduction is a list of links to the sections on the CD. You could click on the link for "Opening Strategy" to jump right to it. However, this opens a second window for the new text (the intro text is still open but in the background). I prefer (especially using ChessBase 8, in which every new window appears as a separate button on the Taskbar) to just close the intro text window (by hitting ESC) and double-clicking on "Opening Strategy" in the game list.

Upon loading the "Opening Strategy" text, we see a short intro to this section and links to the following topics:

Struggle for the Center
Fast Developent of Pieces
Efficient Deployment of Pawns
Safety of the King

Again, you can click on a link or close the text box and select the section you want directly from the game list. Let's try "Struggle for the Center". Upon opening this text, we get several screens of information (including diagrams) explaining the concept. After reading this section, we see three links to games showing the concept in action. Clicking on one of these links loads the game. We can now play through it and read the annotations, seeing the "struggle for the center" in action.

When viewing games, I find it useful to select the "Training" tab in CB8 or the CB Reader. This masks all moves of the game in the notation window except for the last move made and any text annotations that accompany that move. This makes for much easier reading than trying to pick the text out of a full annotation window.

While stepping through the moves of a game, a new window pops open when a separate variation occurs. The main line move (i.e. the move actually played) will be highlighted, but you can simply select the alternate move to play through the variation (by using the mouse or the cursor keys). When you reach the end of the variation, just hit the DELETE key on your keyboard. This doesn't delete any moves; it merely jumps you back to the last "fork in the road" where you again get a window allowing you to select either the main line move or the variation.

When you finish playing through the game, just hit ESC to close the game window and return to the text window. Click on the link provided for the next illustrative game and play through it as above.

Now we know how to use the CDs. So what's on them? I'll lift the descriptions directly from the CDs to show you:

The first CD "Chess Strategy I" contains the following elements of Middlegame and Opening Strategy: Struggle for the centre, Fast Development of Pieces, Efficient Deployment of Pawns, Safety of the King, Plan and Positional Evaluation, Pawns and Pawn Structures (Connected Pawns, Backward Pawn, Isolated Pawn, Doubled Pawns, Passed Pawn, Pawn-"Nail", Pawn Wedge, Pawn Chains, Pawn Cover of the King).

On the second CD "Chess Strategy II" you will find the following elements of Middlegame Strategy: Weak and Strong Squares (weak square, weak point, over-protection, outpost), Centre Types (open centre, closed centre, mobile centre), Open and Semi-Open Files, Piece Activity ('good' and 'bad' pieces, bishop or knight?, bishop pair adventures, opposite-squared bishops), Attack and Defence (attack on the king, attack on the flank, defence and counterattack, prophylaxis).

The third CD "Chess Strategy III" consists of two parts: Middlegame Strategy and Endgame Strategy. The first part includes the following themes: How to Exploit an Advantage? (material advantage, positional advantage, spatial advantage), Positional Exchange, Limiting the Possibilities (limiting the piece mobility, limiting the pawn mobility, blockade), Positional Sacrifice (sacrifice of a pawn, sacrifice of the exchange, sacrifice of the queen, sacrifice of light piece or rook), Manoeuvering in an Equal Position, Initiative, Transition into an Ending. The second part includes such themes as: King's Activity, Role of Pawns, Two Weaknesses Principle.

It sounds like a lot to study and know. It is. But all of this is very important to the development of every chessplayer. And you don't have to be a strong player before you start exploring these concepts -- in fact, understanding them is what will make you a strong player. Now I'm nobody's idea of a killer, but studying strategy made me competent at least. I started studying strategy back when I was around 1150 USCF rated and I saw immediate results in my tournament games. I went from losing nearly all of my games to scoring around 25-30% almost overnight. With more study and practice, I got even better (to the point where I was scoring around 60-65%). Please realize that I'm just like you -- an average player trying to improve -- but I can honestly say that I no longer fear anyone who's not a titled player. Studying strategy is what got me to this point. Studying tactics is great, but unless you know how to form a plan when there are no tactics in a position, you'll never get anywhere.

Consequently, I highly recommend these three CDs to anyone from around 1200 to Expert (2000) level. Assuming you have a decent grasp of tactical themes, studying strategy will take you to the next level of chess play.

As far as the quality of the instruction goes, it's top-notch stuff. Prof. Bartashnikov writes clearly and well and you should have no trouble understanding the ideas he imparts. He makes liberal use of the special annotation features, such as colored arrows, to illustrate what's happening in each game. The trick with this series of CDs is to take your time with the disks. Work through a section or two and then play a few games of your own before coming back to the disk. It's true that it will take you longer to finish each CD this way, but you'll learn more than you would if you'd rushed through the CDs at a lightning pace. But, on the quality issue, here's what I had to say about Basic Principles of Chess Strategy Vol. 1 in a past issue of ETN:

If Ludek Pachman would have had the opportunity to work in the electronic medium when he wrote Complete Chess Strategy, the end result would have been very similar to what we have with this CD (and I'm a huge fan of Pachman's, so that's pretty high praise for this disk!).

Nearly 18 months later, I still stand by that comment and extend it to Volume 2 and 3. This series is the best work on chess strategy since Pachman. I will, however, revise one thing I said in that past review:

I'm convinced that any chessplayer from about 1350 USCF up through USCF Expert can learn a lot from this CD.

I think we can lower the target number from 1350 to around 1200. I'd forgotten that I was rated even lower when I first started studying strategy and how dramatically my results improved after I'd learned some strategic concepts. I think that any player with tournament experience (i.e. a rating) and a junior high school reading comprehension level can learn from these CDs without undue difficulty.

As always, these CDs are self-contained. They come with the ChessBase Reader, so no additional software is required. However, if you own ChessBase or one of the Fritz family of playing programs, you'll definitely want to use those instead of the Reader (why install additional software when you don't need to?).

Also be aware that even though the CDs are designed as a series, it's not a requirement that you own them all. If one CD in the series contains a topic that you have particular problems with, concentrate on that CD (but also be aware that each CD contains references to topics covered on the other two CDs). The ideal learning situation would be to start with Volume 1 and read them in order, but it's not a requirement.

People who have called ChessBase USA and talked to me can attest to the fact that I'm not a "hard sell" guy. I don't "push" software on anyone; I prefer to answer questions about the product and let the customer make up his own mind. But in this case I will definitely make an exception. If you're an average player and want to improve quickly, you need the series Basic Principles of Chess Strategy. Study them, live them, love them. Go back a few paragraphs in this article and read the descriptions of the contents of these CDs. There's a ton of valuable info covered on these disks, all of which will greatly improve your results once you learn it. And now that the series of three CDs is complete, there's no reason to procrastinate any longer. Get 'em while they're hot, read the info, play through the games, learn the techniques, and improve your results. Trust me -- it'll work. (By the way, the only other training CDs that I "hard sell" are Renko's Intensive Tactics Course and King's Check and Mate, both of which are outstanding general improvement disks for any of us down here in the fishpond.)

Until next week, have fun!

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